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The poor handling of the Wisconsin primary amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with partisan politics taking priority over public health and safety, shows why having functional state and local governance is crucial. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the U.S. system of elections into chaos, with multiple states postponing elections due to the crisis.

While the presidential primary election process is seemingly over now that Sen. Bernie Sanders has suspended active campaigning, state and local elections are still taking place across the country. State legislatures in 44 states have elections this cycle with 1,281 state Senate seats and 4,595 state House seats up for grabs. Also, 11 states, along with Puerto Rico and American Samoa, have gubernatorial elections. Nine incumbent governors are currently eligible for reelection.

As the states continue to figure out how to manage elections within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates in Georgia and Texas have looked to the courts as they battle to maintain access to the ballot while protecting public health and safety.

Georgia extends state primary and advocates demand paid postage for absentee ballots

Yesterday, state Republican officials in Georgia convened and decided to delay the state primary election to June 9. All seats in the Georgia state legislature are up for reelection, along with some local races. Georgians remain under a statewide stay-at-home order, which was recently extended to May 13. In response to demands from voting rights groups, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger ordered absentee ballot applications be sent to registered voters.

Earlier this week, the ACLU of Georgia filed suit on behalf of Black Voters Matter against Raffensperger, “seeking a preliminary injunction to require election officials to provide prepaid returnable envelopes for absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications.” A core argument of the lawsuit is that requiring voters to pay postage to send in their ballots is essentially imposing a poll tax. Although in some instances voters can email or fax their absentee ballot application back to their respective county board of election, access to a scanner or faxing is still a barrier for many Georgians, potentially creating a tiered system of access.

Speaking with Prism, Black Voters Matter co-founder Cliff Albright said that while increasing people’s awareness of voting by absentee ballot was the right thing to do, Raffensperger has not taken all possible measures to simplify voting by absentee ballot.  

“With each impediment of having to have a stamp or having to drive to drop it off or or needing to have internet access in order to scan your application and then email it to the office, there comes a drop in turnout,” said Albright.

For Albright, this is about setting a precedent for future elections, including in states beyond Georgia.

“With Georgia, we have an opportunity—if we can force them to do right—where we can try to show a different kind of a model for Wisconsin that can be replicated in November,” he said.

Texas Democrats request absentee ballot law be clarified to permit all voters to vote by mail

Looking ahead to primary election runoffs in July and the November general election, Texas Democrats filed suit requesting that all Texas voters be permitted to vote by absentee ballot.

Under existing Texas law, absentee ballots can only be requested if a voter either has a disability, is 65 years old or older, is out of the county on Election Day and during early voting, or is incarcerated but still eligible to vote.

Pointing to the dangerous decision-making in Wisconsin, Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Abhi Rahman said that conditions require swift action to protect public health. “Like in Wisconsin, we saw the dangerous effects [of] being forced to go to the polling places during this outbreak, and it’s something that we want to avoid here in Texas,” he said.

During the primary on Super Tuesday, some Texans waited six hours to vote in person due to record poll closures. The lawsuit would help to alleviate some of the long waits as it calls for the state to permit anyone who wants an absentee ballot to request one and vote that way, in the interest of public health.  

”Not only is that just common sense, it’s good for democracy,” said Rahman.

Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.