Panel Discussion Explores Voters’ Rights Amid the Current Pandemic

A panel of experts on voters’ rights gathered Wednesday, June 24, for a virtual discussion on how to ensure a free and fair election amid the pandemic.

Sophia Hall, supervisory attorney for Lawyers for Civil Rights; Brenda Wright, senior advisor for Legal Strategies; Genevieve Nadeau, counsel for the nonpartisan nonprofit Protect Democracy; and Quentin Palfrey, former lieutenant gubernatorial candidate and chair of the Voter Protection Corps, were the panelists, and Rob Whiney, a member of Sulloway & Hollis, P.L.L.C., president of the ACS Boston Lawyer Chapter and a Beacon Hill resident, moderated the discussion.

“COVID-19 offer us an opportunity as a Commonwealth,” Hall said. “Anything that gets us to modernize voter systems and to include the disenfranchised is a good thing.”

Massachusetts has made strides in modernizing the state’s voting system and making it more accessible by passing early voting in 2014, Hall said, and by passing automatic voter registration four years later. (The latter automatically registers eligible voters whenever they contact the Registry of Motor Vehicles or MassHealth, although it hasn’t been implemented yet.)

Election Day registration, Hall added, is now the “third tool” necessary to modernize the state’s voting system.

The pandemic has essentially “fast-tracked this conversation,” Hall said, and a bill went before the House and Senate in the last two months to make voting more accessible, which includes expanding early voting; allowing absentee (mail-in) voting in Massachusetts for the first time; and extending deadlines for voter registration.

Getting people to register to vote is crucial because they are historically the ones who turn up to the polls in the highest numbers, but Wright said, “Less attention is paid to keeping people registered once they’re on the rolls.”

Wright said “voter purge” is to blame for this, and one reason it occurs is that systems used to cross-reference voters to ensue they aren’t registered in more than one state, according to one study, “made errors almost 99 percent of the time.”

Besides expanding absentee and early voting options, Nadeau said, “In-person voting needs to remain an option and be as safe as possible during the pandemic.”

With the anticipated changes to the voting system will likely come new complications (e.g. absentee ballots being delayed in the mail), so Nadeau said election results might not be available in the usual timely manner people have grown accustomed to receiving them. “We might not have results as quickly as we’re used to, and we want to make sure voters understand that,” she added.

Getting the results in an expeditious manner is the least of Palfrey’s concerns when it comes to the election, however.

“I’m going to take a more alarmed and alarmist tone on why this is a profound threat to future of democracy,” Palfrey said. “We have a President who won’t concede. I think he’s already laying the groundwork for that.

Among the factors that Palfrey said threaten to turn the election into a “prefect storm” are the “undemocratic disparities between people of color and that young people face when registering to vote,” which he described as “the baseline for an apartheid voting system.”

Palfrey added that President Trump has “weaponized laws about voter fraud,” and that he believes misinformation disseminated to minority populations and “micro-targeting” them could also influence the election.

While Palfrey said he “feels sternly” that absentee voting is crucial to the election, he also underscored the importance of keeping the polls open, since an estimated 116 million voters cast their ballots in person in the ’16 Presidential election.

Those most likely to vote in person are from vulnerable populations, such as blacks, Native Americans and the homeless, Palfrey said, and they are also the ones who have faced the biggest obstacles in registering.

“We need to push back against notion that consolidating polling locations is an acceptable solution,” Palfrey said, “and we need a massive effort to recruit and train poll workers.”

The Commonwealth still has a long way to go, Palfrey added, when it comes to ensuring voters’ rights.

“Massachusetts has not been a leader, we can do much, much better,” he said. “We need to demand better election laws in Massachusetts, including Election Day registration.”

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