California may claim to have all the correct policies and politicians may say all the right things about voting, but in practice we fail.
By Valerie Morishige, Special to CalMatters
Valerie Morishige, a voting rights advocate, has been a poll worker for more than two decades, firstname.lastname@example.org. She is currently working to address the voter registration shortfall due to the pandemic.
If you think that voter suppression only happens in Southern states like Kentucky or Georgia, then let me tell you that we have voter suppression in liberal California, too.
During the primaries I was a poll worker at a vote center in downtown Los Angeles with lines that were five hours long, too few ballot marking devices (which went down every two hours because of power failures), ePollbooks that would become unusable every 20 minutes while they were syncing, and poll workers who weren’t adequately trained for all of the changes.
It was a hot mess, and that was before the pandemic hit California.
We might have all of the fancy policies and politicians saying all the right things about voting in California, but in practice we fail.
A democratic institution like voting is made up of policies, practices and people. California might have amazing policies like online registration, pre-registration, motor voter registration, vote-by-mail sent to all, a vote-by-mail ballot tracing system, early voting, ADA accessible vote centers, in-language assistance and no restrictive ID laws; but our practices and our people are falling short.
Some businesses and public facilities do not want to provide space for vote centers because of stringent regulations, and now the additional burden of having to follow the patchwork of local public health guidelines for COVID-19.
Poll workers, who are overwhelmingly in our most vulnerable population of seniors, are underpaid and undertrained resulting in a poor voting experience for many. In any other state we would call this outcome voter suppression.
We need to make voting accessible for all.
Even during a pandemic we need in-person voting available for people who may need assistance, such as those with disabilities or who may need in-language support. Due to the anticipated decrease in vote centers as a result of funding cuts caused by the pandemic, we need to make sure everyone who can vote by mail, does vote by mail.
The amount of voter education necessary to get out the word on how to vote early and safely during a pandemic is an expensive PR campaign that our county clerks have not budgeted for, nor have the expertise to pull off.
What can we, as concerned citizens, do?
We must push our elected representatives at every level to provide more funding for voter outreach, logistics and most importantly, generous stipends for poll workers recognizing that they are essential workers putting themselves on the frontline for democracy.
We should contact our city officials to partner with county clerks to find suitable places to host vote centers. We need to let businesses and public facilities know that we want them to commit to civic participation: open up space for vote centers or ballot drop off boxes, provide time-off for folks to vote during the in-person voting period, not just Nov. 3, and encourage employees to use their volunteer time to be a poll worker.
We also need organizations that make endorsements and play an important role in voter education – like Voter’s Edge and League of Women Voters – to step up their timeline to release voter guides so that voters can vote early. Tech savvy young adults with no underlying conditions and health insurance should sign up to be a poll worker.
Voting is a racial justice issue, and the true measure of success is impact, not good intentions.
Californians, now is not the time to be smug about how liberal we are; our institutions must do better and open their purses. Policies, practices and people must all be aligned for California to truly be a leader in voting rights. If we can’t get it right, how does any other state even stand a chance?