The pictures of Milwaukeeans waiting in line to vote on April 7 with homemade personal protective equipment were both beautiful and horrifying. It was beautiful — inspiring even — that with a deadly pandemic on their doorsteps, so many people still cared so much about their right to vote that they went to the polls. And it was horrifying that they had to risk their health in order to do so.
News reports indicated that Milwaukee, the most diverse city in a largely white state, had reduced its usual 180 polling sites to just five. Covid-19 has exposed serious problems in our election systems, and it has made the need for reform urgent. Voters of color and demographically changing communities all across the country already knew this, though. As this report details, Black and Latino Americans face longer wait times on Election Day than white voters. In the past, long wait times were disruptive and disenfranchising. In the middle of a pandemic, they could also be deadly.
Though completed before the eruption of the coronavirus, this report is even more critical now because it provides information regarding community needs as well as mistakes commonly made in planning for and staffing in-person voting. While the risk of Covid-19 will no doubt move more voters to cast their ballots by mail, some communities — more typically communities of color rely on polling places. We must make sure that there are in-person options, and that they have enough of the right kinds of resources.
The period leading up to the November general election will be marked by extreme disruption and hardship in all facets of American life. At the time of publication, the pandemic has killed more than 100,000 Americans. It has also caused schools to close, people to lose their jobs, and Americans to distance themselves from one another. Our fundamental right to vote and our democratic processes are more important than ever: The officials we elect will make high-stakes decisions that will impact our health, safety, and welfare.
In these dire times, our country will not benefit from the judgment and experiences of all its citizens unless all Americans can vote freely and safely.
Director, Voting Rights and Elections Program
Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law