By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: We are talking about the Coronavirus and voting rights. Our guest is Jarret Berg, a New York attorney, voting rights advocate, and co-founder of Vote Early New York, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on pro-voter implementation and education.
Jaret Berg: Thank you, Gloria. Thrilled to join you.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: We have been focused on voting rights on Law of the Land for many years, and all of the ways in which, not just voter oppression, suppression, but the right to vote and the many aspects of voting. Some people think just casting the ballot is voting, that’s fine, but it’s not the right to vote, the right to vote starts before that. And so that means that we have access to our polling places. That we have people who are poll takers. That the polling machines work. But in this season of the coronavirus, what do you think are some of the obstacles that are preventing people from voting?
Jaret Berg: I’m fond of saying that rights are only as real as the opportunities we have to exercise them, and when it comes to voting rights that couldn’t be more true today, because it’s so much more than rights, and what we know is that anytime there’s a new hurdle, how does that impact voters? And so, something like the spread of a person to person virus, and the directives to stay home. And the goal during any sort of public health emergency or any emergency, always has to be striking that balance between public safety and making sure that our civil rights, don’t get squeezed in the process. You can also go to the board of elections and physically request an absentee ballot and stand there while they process your form and print you your ballot and cast it right then and there. But both by mail is sort of almost anonymous for those folks who request and absentee by mail. I’m using those interchangeably for the most part, but technically you could do absentee in person. We think the state should look at paying “postage paid return” like they’ve started to do in other states. We think they should consider mailing everybody potentially an absentee ballot in the counties where they can do that.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: Our National Election Day is Nov. 3 and one of my concerns is that this measure, in which we have no measures regarding how the virus is affecting not just state and local, but federal voting rights is a concern to me, because we don’t want this virus should be used as a mechanism to maintain the government in place. And my concern and I want to raise this with you, given the fact that we don’t have rallies, because we were not allowed to be in public spaces at this point or we shouldn’t be in public spaces many of us are, you know, under quarantine for different reasons. Does this then support incumbents? I mean whether or not those incumbents are Democrat or Republican, because it seems the challengers don’t have access to vital airtime.
Jaret Berg: But what we know from a human rights perspective, right, that there’s a precedent that emergency declarations become abused over time. And they can be dangerous because they really do give the government blanket power to curtail liberty entirely for the duration of the emergency and of course they are the deciders of how long the emergency lasts.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: What about the poll workers? Many of them are elderly, many of them are retired people; they’re in that zone of the most vulnerable. Do we have enough poll workers? Do we have enough people who are volunteering to put themselves on the front line?
Jaret Berg: This is part of why we never thought it was great policy to put all our eggs in one basket and push millions of people to the polls on a single day. That’s why we think actually expanding the early voting program and both by mail and having several weeks to do that so that we’re dramatically reducing the volume of Election Day.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: Thank you, Jarett Berg. New York attorney, voting rights advocate, and co-founder of Vote Early New York.
Jaret Berg: Thanks for all that you do Gloria. Stay safe.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a legal correspondent and host/producer of “Law of the Land” on WBAI 99.5FM radio and WBAI.org, in New York City. Gloria is a professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College (CUNY), author of “The Voting Rights War” and a playwright working on her debut novel. Twitter: GBrowneMarshall Andres Estevez assisted with editing this radio transcript, conducted on March 17, 2020. Listen to Gloria’s podcasts on Spotify.