By Mathew Alexander, Suhas Gondi, and Ali Khan
Alexander is a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gondi is a medical student at Harvard University. Khan is a primary case physician from Northern Virginia. He is co-founder of Vote Health 2020 and a director of the American Board of Internal Medicine.
Last month, Gov. Northam signed voter protection legislation allowing ballot drop boxes for the general election. As doctors and medical students, we commend state officials for protecting the right to vote and health of all Virginians.
The circumstances surrounding the 2020 election are unprecedented, and barriers to voting are unusually high. For the past nine months, our country has grappled with the consequences of our flawed COVID-19 response. Our seniors and vulnerable remain sheltered in place, our children spend their school days on Zoom, and our essential workers continue to find themselves in harm’s way. Routine activities – like in-person voting – are up in the air. Persistent missteps and inaction from the highest levels of government diminish any hope of a speedy return to any semblance of normal.
Recent events serve as additional deterrents to voting. The Trump Administration’s attacks on the U.S. Postal Service have crippled potential mail-in voting. Backlogs of mail currently exist around the country. The increased use of absentee voting during the primary elections faced challenges like rejected mail-in ballots. These issues extend to Virginia. Prior to the passage of this legislation, the Brookings Institution had rated Virginia a “D” on its vote-by-mail pandemic preparedness report card.
Safe and reliable voting options are undoubtedly needed. We’ve witnessed patients struggle to balance their health with a desire for normalcy throughout the pandemic. Alternative voting options like vote-by-mail will help prevent disenfranchisement due to health concerns. These options will also shorten lines on Election Day, protecting both voters and poll workers. Ballot drop boxes further ensure that we inch closer to a democracy in which every citizen has an equal say in our collective future.
Drop boxes, however, are simply a first step. We must do more to maximize civic participation, especially in a COVID-limited world.
1. We encourage local and state officials to place drop boxes at hospitals, clinics, and other front lines. Yes, registrar offices and government centers are secure locations. But, convenience and accessibility deserve consideration. Placing additional boxes at safe, infection-controlled areas (e.g. hospitals) or familiar locations (e.g. libraries, grocery stores, banks) will lower the burden on voters. The security of these boxes could be ensured through steps like manned surveillance or use of lockable, secure ballot containers. Similarly, ballot drop boxes could be co-located with drop boxes for public utilities and taxes.
2. We advise officials to prioritize areas that have been hit hard by the pandemic. Additional considerations should be given to non-urban areas like Southwest Virginia, the newest COVID-19 hotspot in Virginia. Ethnic and racial minorities have also been disproportionately impacted. African and Latino Americans account for more than 57% of COVID-19 cases in Virginia despite representing less than 30% of the population. Adding boxes in communities with high minority populations will alleviate concerns about safety and increase voter participation.
3. We urge our leaders to strengthen incentives for alternative voting options, including automatically sending all registered voters a mail-in ballot or an application for absentee voting. Virginia could also extend its timeframe for accepting mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day or fixing incorrectly submitted ballots.
4. Though in-person voting may not be advisable for the most vulnerable, we recommend additional safeguards (e.g. masking, social distancing, plexiglass barriers between poll workers and voters) for polling locations.
5. Taking a page from the NBA and NFL, non-traditional venues like sports arenas should be considered as voting sites. Imagine the thrill of voting at the Richmond Raceway, John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, the Martinsville Speedway, Lane Stadium and Roanoke’s Berglund Center – all locations that can accommodate thousands while maximizing safety and social distancing.
Of course, the actions above will not be impactful without effective communication. We need widespread community engagement and voter education, particularly on successfully completing and submitting absentee ballots. Clear and consistent messaging, which we’ve lacked from the federal government during COVID-19, is also critical to voter participation. We must assure voters that their ballots will count and that drop boxes are safe and secure.
A well-functioning democracy is undeniably tied to the health of our population. A country in which some are unable to exercise their rights, due to health concerns, misinformation, or voter suppression, undermines the well-being of all its citizens. Never has this been more apparent than during a pandemic. Virginia has taken important steps to protect voters. Let’s build on this progress, and exercise our liberties to vote for new presidential leadership that supports the integrity of our democracy and the health of all Americans.
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