Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., represents Memphis in Congress. Photo by Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — As demonstrators continue to flood streets around the country to protest police brutality and racial inequality, communities of color remain disproportionately threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic and voter suppression, a Tennessee Democratic lawmaker warned this week.
The pandemic “has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, disproportionately impacting African Americans among other historically disadvantaged people,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said Wednesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Cohen, who is chairman of a U.S. House subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties, led a hearing on protecting the right to vote during the pandemic.
Voting rights, he said, are “tied to the protests occurring across this nation. Police violence against black Americans and suppressing the right to vote are two sides to the same coin, the coin of systemic racism [that] has plagued our country since before its founding.”
The way the nation responds to the confluence of crises, Cohen said, “will shape fundamentally who we are as a people.”
Voting rights advocates told Cohen and his colleagues that state and federal governments must do more to ensure that all eligible U.S. voters who want to can safely vote by mail during the pandemic.
They warned that insufficient policies could force citizens to jeopardize their health as they head to the polls.
Stacey Abrams, a voting rights advocate and the founder of Fair Fight Action, warned lawmakers of a “coordinated assault on access to our democracy.” Access to the right to vote, she said, will “determine how recovery and systemic justice are achieved.”
She urged lawmakers to provide federal funding for states to support and expand vote by mail, to place “critical guardrails on access” to the polls, to educate voters on their options and to increase the safety of in-person voting.
A sweeping $3 trillion bill passed by the U.S. House last month would spend $3.6 billion to assist states with voting during the pandemic, including efforts to expand voting by mail and early in-person voting. But Senate Republicans have called the bill “dead on arrival,” stressing that they aren’t interested in passing legislation that’s packed with Democratic priorities.
‘I watched in horror’
Abrams — who’s widely considered a Democratic vice presidential contender — pointed to Wisconsin’s April primary as a lesson about how pandemic voting can go awry.
“I was born in Madison, Wisconsin,” she said. “On April 7, I watched in horror as the cautionary tale of their election took place. None of us should forget the images of voters shivering in long lines and crowded into the vastly reduced number of in-person polling locations.”
The Wisconsin State Journal reported that 71 people got COVID-19 after voting in person or working at the polls during Wisconsin’s April 7 election, citing a state official. It wasn’t clear whether the infections were caused by the election or by other exposures.
No American should have to choose between their health, possibly their life, and their sacred right to vote.
– U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen
Back in Tennessee on Wednesday, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union were slated to argue during a hearing that absentee voting should be an option during the pandemic to all eligible voters in the state.
Tennessee is one of only five states that currently does not allow all voters to submit absentee ballots for any reason. Voters in the state can obtain an absentee ballot if they meet one of 14 criteria, including physical disability, being 60 or older or being away on Election Day.
“If we truly believe that no American should have to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote, we must follow the CDC’s recommendation to allow all Americans to use voting methods that minimize direct contact with other people and reduce crowd size at pollution locations,” Dale Ho, director of ACLU’s voting rights project, told lawmakers in Washington.
The pandemic, he warned, “presents the greatest challenge to elections administration since the 1864 presidential election was conducted during the Civil War.”
Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that aims to expand voting by mail and early voting and improve the safety of in-person voting. Cohen is the lone member of the Tennessee congressional delegation who has signed on.
The legislation would require states to provide no-excuse mail-in absentee voting for the 2020 elections and to allow early in-person voting for at least 20 days for the 2020 elections. It would provide $5 billion in federal funding.
“No American should have to choose between their health, possibly their life, and their sacred right to vote,” Cohen said Wednesday.
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