Opinion: Voting in the time of COVID-19

Like previous obstacles, our current difficulties can be overcome.

Voting in the United States is a right and privilege that is provided to its citizens as codified in the U.S. Constitution and its Amendments. It is an important foundation of our democracy. However, the history of voting rights in the U.S. is a long and arduous road, rife with struggle and civil unrest. Our history of slavery, immigration, migration, economics and the sociopolitical environment during periods of cultural and social change have all exerted an influence on voting rights in the United States.

I am a first-generation immigrant who entered the U.S. in the late 1950s during the height of the civil rights era. This time was punctuated by social unrest and upheaval in the fight for equal rights. Looking back at my experience during this period, I will never forget my introduction to America when at the age of nine, I watched on television children being escorted to class by U.S. Marshals to integrate Southern schools. Or, even more traumatic, the spectacle of Blacks being kicked, clubbed and attacked by dogs because they were fighting for their rights as human beings, fighting against disenfranchisement, or their right to vote without any encumbrances, as provided in 15th Amendment to the Constitution. These violent scenes are forever etched in my mind.

Fast forward 60 years later, to 2020. This year we celebrate the 100th year of the passing of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing the constitutional right of women to vote. Yet, it was not until 1965 that Black women were allowed to exercise that right. Now, all Americans and specifically, Blacks, poor people, and other minorities in the United States are feeling the threat of disenfranchisement. Yes, all citizens have a right to vote, but now we are battling more insidious barriers, such as a decrease in access to voting places, ineffective administrative processes, and worse of all, a worldwide pandemic, this time from the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. This disease disproportionately affects people of color, persons with underlying conditions, or other high-risk populations, but we are all suffering within this context. People are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, resulting from isolation, major changes in everyday life activities, and economic instability.

Patricia Thompson-Reid
Patricia Thompson-Reid

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Images of police brutality meted on individuals in peaceful protest against the indiscriminate killing of Black men; the loss of family and friends; and the ever-changing advice of how to prevent infection are burdensome on individuals. and can threaten the ability to exercise the basic right to vote in an election year. The allostatic load, or the wear and tear being carried by the population as a result of these troubling events is high! We have two choices: we can deny our feelings and do nothing, or we can take action to exercise our right to vote. It is a privilege that many have lost lives and shed blood to preserve.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic will create challenges to all forms of voting this year. For those who are voting in-person, long lines on election day in states with high infection rates will put many persons at risk for contracting the virus or for getting the seasonal flu.

My experience in the last election in Georgia, a runoff, raised my angst about mail-in ballots. I received my ballot 4 days after the election date. Fortunately, when I did not receive my ballot, I was able to go to the polling site and vote -- it did take a bit longer to invalidate my mail-in ballot, and to get a PIN for a new ballot. Yes, I was able to vote, but I thought of others who did not receive their ballot in a timely manner, could not drive or find transportation to vote in-person that day. A quick survey of family and friends found that 50% of those surveyed did not receive their ballots on time. This is a serious matter. We must get prepared for voting in the presidential election on November 3rd!

Personally, I predict that absentee balloting will be the preference for many voters, including the elderly, the sick and shut-in, persons with a disability, and persons who will be out of their voting precinct on the specified day because they want to reduce their exposure to COVID-19. This could be particularly true in states where masks are not mandated. Voting in this context could create many problems, especially in places with long lines and crowds not practicing social distancing. In an emergency situation, some states will provide an election official to deliver the ballots personally or may allow a designated family member to deliver the ballot. Not all states provide these services, but all voters should become familiar with emergency absentee voting options and requirements in their states now. For those who receive their ballots too late to mail them back, there are dropboxes in Georgia where you can drop off your completed and signed ballot. Call a voter protection hotline to find where they are located in your county.

The U.S. Postal Service faithfully delivers our mail every day. This institution is an important player in the mailing of absentee ballots; if one chooses to vote using an absentee ballot, there are hard deadlines. I urge my fellow citizens not to pay attention to the negativity around the post office and its role in this election. We have to trust our institutions, hold those in charge accountable, and believe that this institution exists to provide an important public service. Go to https://www.usa.gov/how-to-vote, to find where and how to request and submit an absentee ballot, and most importantly, pay attention to the deadlines! On this site, you can also check registration requirements, and registration status by state. You can also find out where to go to vote on election day, or where you can vote early.

The key to being successful in exercising your right to vote this year during this pandemic, is planning ahead -- start now, in September. Act early and identify contingencies in case of any setbacks. If your ballot does not arrive on time, at least a week before the date of the election, bring out your contingency plan. Those who do not have a dropbox nearby, put on your mask and find your way to the polling station on voting day. Just breathe deeply and think for a minute of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, his sacrifice, and that of many others to protect the right to vote. What would they do in this situation?

Patricia Thompson-Reid has worked for more than 40 years in national and global public health. She lives in Atlanta, is very involved with her church, and is a mother and grandmother.

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