Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Vote or Die? Why Voting in Kansas is a Public Health Crisis

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April 16, 2020

To many people in our communities, especially in Kansas, voter suppression is not a new thing. However, voting is about to get a lot harder because of COVID-19, unless we, as young people, demand better from our elected officials.

Personally, I couldn’t vote in my first election in 2014 because of former Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s proof of citizenship requirement. For those who are unaware, this was a rule that required you to submit a copy of vital documents, like a birth certificate or passport, after registering to vote. Despite being born in the US, I couldn’t produce the documents needed to vote because I was born in Nevada, and then had my last name changed in California after my parents were married. I would have needed not only my birth certificate but also the court order from the name change. At the time, I was busy with applying to college, getting into college, and starting my first year, filled with not knowing how to balance signing up for activities and keeping up with classwork. Jumping through bureaucratic hoops was just something I didn’t have time for. Despite that, I still worked on a political campaign and registered others to vote, but hearing people blame non-voters for the re-election of Governor Sam Brownback stung, as I’m sure it did for the other 30,000 people in Kansas who couldn’t vote because of Kobach’s rule.

Back to COVID-19. The US hasn’t had to deal with a pandemic of this scale since the Spanish Flu and some flu outbreaks in the 1950s and 1960s, and even then, the health system was much more equipped to handle it. Many parts of daily life are disrupted because of social distancing. Many young people are not going to receive a stimulus check. Prisons are overcrowded on a normal day, now add a covert and easy spreadable virus there’s no vaccine for currently. Congress is slow to help because conservatives would rather preserve their stock value than make sure the people they represent have the material goods to survive their daily lives. 

The federal government, and any government, is intended for collective public action, and it is failing. Because of this, states, like Kansas, are left up to their own devices in many aspects of governing through COVID-19. Things won’t change unless everyone’s vote is counted, but there won’t be votes to count if we can’t figure out how to safely hold an election.

Currently, in Kansas, we have the option of mail-in advanced voting or voting at our polling location. Kobach’s requirement to prove citizenship in order to vote was overruled by a federal judge, so presenting identification at a polling location is the only id law currently in effect. 

In order to use a mail-in ballot in Kansas, you must fill out an application and return it before the election for both the primary and general election. Your county clerk or county election commission will mail you a ballot once they receive the application. The exact deadlines vary county by county. Both the application and ballot can be dropped off at the county clerk or election commission or it can be mailed in before the election. Even mail-in ballots as they are today are not completely safe though.

In-person voting, amidst COVID-19, will put people at a high risk of illness. Just think about all those shared surfaces, let alone the lines that can amass. You also have to interact with a number of poll workers regardless if you choose a paper ballot or voting machine.

We can’t do away with in-person voting completely because many don’t have a mailing address, like those living on reservations or experiencing housing insecurity. However, we need to ask for better from our Kansas officials. Every registered voter should automatically receive an advanced ballot application in the mail. Douglas County, home of the University of Kansas, already does this and should be the example that we follow.

Simply mailing everyone a ballot is not enough though. The envelopes for the application and ballot should be self-sealing and come prestamped. Stamps individually are cheap but an entire book can be at least nine USD. In the highest period of unemployment since the Great Depression, it’s not unreasonable to say that many people cannot afford their own stamps. The self-sealing aspect may seem like a small detail, but, in the middle of a global pandemic, we shouldn’t be asking people to lick envelopes for the safety of postal and electoral workers.

The bottom line of all of this? People shouldn’t have to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote. Anyone who says that elections don’t need to be modified in response to COVID-19 is openly calling for voter suppression. All of these suggestions are not radical. In fact, these should have already been in place. Issues like voting access, an ineffective healthcare system, and the prison industrial complex are not new issues, but COVID-19 is shining a light on these problems that young people have consistently been calling attention to and working on for over a decade.

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