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Local Governments Can and Must Act to Protect Voting Rights

By Robert Brandon | October 29, 2021

To date this year, 19 states across the nation have passed 33 laws that make it more difficult for their constituents to vote, using restrictions that vary from stricter voter identification requirements to shortened voting periods. And while eyes remain on Congress and the Biden administration for a response to these attacks, voting rights protections are stalled yet again at the federal level. As some state lawmakers continue trying to make it harder to vote, local governments — including mayors, city councils, and local election administrators — have tools and tactics within their power that they can leverage to help make sure every eligible voter in their constituency has access to vote.

Local officials can take action to protect voting in three major ways: expanding voting options through administrative actions, providing concrete help through voter education and passing ordinances.

As one means of expanding voting rights, local governments can take administrative action, changing how elections are run in ways that make voting more accessible. We saw this unfold remarkably during the pandemic, when elections officials in cities nationwide took action to ensure that people could vote without putting their health at risk.

The local government in Harris County, Texas, was particularly proactive in promoting these alternative voting options. Officials sent vote-by-mail applications to elderly voters and instituted 24-hour early voting as well as drive-through voting. (This approach, while unfortunately banned under Texas’ new law, is still possible in other states.) Meanwhile, Philadelphia city commissioners opened numerous satellite election offices where voters could register or update their registration, apply for a mail-in ballot and vote all in one visit. Other cities and counties have used mobile voting sites successfully — including Denver, which launched a mobile voting site for the 2020 primaries.

More than any other level of government, local governments are the closest to the people they serve and frequently interact with them on a regular basis. Local governments can leverage this regular communication to provide education that helps voters navigate the registration and voting process. While most county clerks’ offices provide information on their websites relating to voting, there are other ways to educate voters. Responding to Georgia’s voting restrictions, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order calling for the training of city staff members on voter registration; early, absentee and in-person voting; and how to obtain identification required for absentee voting. The order also required voting information to be included in city water bills, including QR codes that link to city websites. In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia officials created a Vote From Home flyer and resource for 2020 voters in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Russian, Arabic, Hindi and Indonesian, ensuring that information about voting reached the city’s diverse communities.

To be clear, local officials cannot protect voting rights and access alone. Not only are many states imposing stricter barriers to voting, but some are seeking to limit what local officials can do to increase voter participation. We need strong voting rights protections at the federal level, including the Freedom to Vote Act, to set a standard, comprehensive baseline for ensuring voters can cast their ballots. But local leaders can still make a significant impact on voter turnout and ease of access in their communities. The effort to set up drive through voting by Harris County officials last year allowed roughly 127,000 voters to cast ballots safely during the pandemic.

Understanding the threat of the pandemic, local elections officials all around the country used out-of-the-box thinking in 2020 to ensure that their fellow citizens were still able to participate in our democracy. Even as they face new attacks from state governments simply for doing their jobs, local governments and elections officials must continue to do all they can to protect and expand voting rights for the people they serve.

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Robert Brandon is the president and CEO of the Fair Elections Center, a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization.

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