People from around the world who have seen the U.S. as a beacon of democracy are shaking their heads. It’s not only about our rising coronavirus infections or the deadly effects of our systemic racism being on full display. Our failure to run safe and secure elections is making a mockery of our status as leaders of the free world. Our counties and cities are struggling and need federal help. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst can and must do something about it, because we’re all better than this.
It is true that the coronavirus pandemic has complicated our elections. At the same time, conducting free and fair elections that offer everyone an opportunity to participate remains an essential, defining function of government in a free society. And yet we are failing that fundamental test of democracy.
In many primary elections this spring and summer, people have had to wait in line for five, six, or seven hours to vote. Iowa ran a comparatively successful primary in June because the secretary of state took important steps to ease voting, including mailing absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. Sadly, lawmakers have since moved to curtail that option, casting Iowans’ easy access to voting alternatives in November into doubt.
Nobody should have to sacrifice a day of work or endure physical hardship to have their voice heard in our democracy. Nobody should be forced to put their health and the safety of their loved ones at risk just to exercise their right to vote. And voters shouldn’t have to wait for a week to get results from the polls.
Our national leaders have a responsibility to step up and make sure that our state and local officials get the guidance and financial help they need now, as we approach one of the most consequential elections of our lifetime. We have to be able to pull off successful elections this fall — no matter where each state is on the COVID curve in November.
The U.S. House has led the way by passing the HEROES Act — the next piece of coronavirus recovery legislation. It includes essential funding to protect the security and integrity of the 2020 elections. And it includes resources to ensure that the U.S. Postal Service is strong and prepared to handle the increased number of ballots being cast by mail. The Republican-led Senate has, up until now, refused to take up this urgently needed bill, and Ernst and Grassley have joined in that opposition. Ernst, in particular, appears to be trying to have it both ways: giving lip service to the importance of safe voting options such as Iowa employed in June, while adamantly opposing the HEROES Act — and voicing unrealistic hopes that somehow everything will be back to normal for in-person voting in November. Well, time’s up. When Ernst and Grassley return to Washington, they have to act in the best interests of Iowans and all Americans.
The voting provisions in the HEROES Act are not radical, extreme, or unduly costly. The funding would go toward common-sense approaches to protecting this year’s elections for all of us, like accessible early-voting opportunities to reduce Election Day crowds, and printing and postage for mail-in ballots. It would go toward voter education so people understand their options, safety precautions for in-person voting, and updating ballot processing systems so they are more efficient.
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This is a moment of shared national crisis. It calls for a shared national response to protect our elections, and make sure that the will of the people — all the people — is heard in November.
We can rise to the occasion. We can prove to ourselves — and show to the world — that our system of democratic elections can withstand the coronavirus challenge.
That means that the HEROES Act and its essential support for elections and the postal service must no longer be bogged down in partisan congressional squabbling. The bill is in the Senate’s hands. Senators Grassley and Ernst, it’s time to lead.
Ben Jealous is president of People For the American Way. He previously served as president of the national NAACP.