The big news from Georgia’s primary election last Tuesday wasn’t who won and who lost. It was the galling meltdown at polling places in black communities across the state. New voting machines were missing or didn’t work. Voters waited hours in line to cast their ballots. Some understandably gave up.
This isn’t new. Nor is it a coincidence. Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, is the latest Republican official to carry out his party’s tradition of voter suppression. Last week, it was malfunctioning voting machines. Two years ago, when Gov. Brian Kemp was secretary of state, it was purges of black voters, wiping half a million Georgians off voter rolls in an election decided by a tenth that many votes. The disenfranchisement of black and brown citizens, in Georgia and elsewhere, continues.
Secretaries of state can suppress the vote in many other ways, too: by limiting the number of polling places, putting fewer voting machines in certain districts and issuing confusing instructions. Such is the power of state elections officials.
That is why selecting the right people for an often overlooked statewide office — secretary of state — is so critical to free and fair elections. If we want to avoid nightmares like Georgia, we need officials committed to increasing participation in elections in each of the 36 states that directly elect secretaries of state. This is my job: I’ve spent the last decade fighting to elect secretaries of state who actually believe in everyone voting.
Where a secretary of state’s goal is universal access to the ballot, there are proven steps they can take. In Michigan, for example, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson identified precincts with the lowest participation and then visited them to find out what she could do to help people vote. She made it easier to register — she authorized registration online in advance and in-person on Election Day, began distributing absentee ballots two and a half months before the election and launched the state’s first campaign to recruit a new generation of poll workers.
Ms. Benson has also announced that all Michiganders would automatically receive applications to vote by mail for upcoming elections, prompting an angry (and inaccurate) tweet from President Trump. She’s also launching a statewide ballot tracking system to help voters check the status of their ballot request and, once the ballot is completed, confirm it has been received by the state.
In Arizona, where vote-by-mail has long been popular, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs announced that the state will encourage counties to send vote-by-mail applications to every voter with postage prepaid. She has also added secure, drive-up boxes for safely depositing ballots.
Although Ms. Benson and Ms. Hobbs are both Democrats, there are several Republican secretaries of state who have recently shown a willingness to expand vote-by-mail amid the pandemic, bucking their party’s long history of opposing increased access to ballots.
In Iowa, Secretary of State Paul Pate — who previously promoted legislation to restrict voting by students and others — is now encouraging mail-in voting because of the pandemic. In Nebraska, Secretary of State Bob Evnen encouraged voters to take advantage of early voting and mail-in voting. And in West Virginia, where Election Day is a state holiday, Secretary of State Mac Warner mailed absentee ballot applications to all his state’s voters.
We’re in a moment of crisis and upheaval, when Americans see more clearly how their choices at the ballot box affect their daily lives. Tens of thousands of Americans have been protesting in the streets. People are passionate about change. But for real change, we need a mechanism that converts protest into policy. That mechanism is the vote. And secretaries of state determine whether everyone who wants to vote can do so.
Today we are seeing deliberate efforts to deny certain groups their right to vote. To make matters worse, fear of the pandemic has created a new weapon to suppress the vote: denying people the right to vote by mail.
When you take these challenges together — a pandemic without precedent and a concerted Republican campaign of voter suppression — it is clear we are living through the most immediate challenge to millions of Americans’ ability to cast their votes since Jim Crow.
In a way, last week’s election in Georgia again did us a favor, as it did in 2018 when Mr. Kemp’s foul play showed the nation the ways in which election administrators can rig the system. Last Tuesday’s primary showed us what will happen across the country unless we fight for Americans’ right to vote — and elect state officials whose mission is to increase participation.
Because when we elect a secretary of state, we’re not just choosing someone to run our elections. We’re electing a guardian of our country’s values.
Ellen Kurz (@EllenKurz) is president of iVote, a voting rights group, and leads iVoteFACTS, a campaign to educate Americans about how to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].