Five Questions on Voting During a Pandemic for Election Lawyer Myrna Pérez ’03

Voting rights expert Myrna Pérez ’03 says voters need “lots of options” to make sure everyone can cast a ballot safely, in person or otherwise.

Man wearing a surgical mask for COVID-19 pandemic holds a sticker that says "I VOTED"

Myrna Pérez ’03 is director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice and leads the program’s research, advocacy, and litigation work nationwide. She is regularly cited in news media on election issues and has testified before Congress and state legislatures. An adviser to Columbia Law School’s Social Justice Initiatives, Pérez teaches a seminar on election law from the perspective of civil rights lawyers. In October, she was presented with a Distinguished Alumni Award by the Latinx Law Students Association. In the wake of the Wisconsin primary on April 7, Pérez laid out her thoughts on the impact coronavirus could have on voting in 2020 elections.

Are you worried that the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting quarantines and social distancing requirements, will cause problems with voting this year?

I am most worried that we as a country are not going to do enough, quickly enough, to assure voters that they don’t have to choose between their health and safety and voting.

We have a lot of time between now and November, but a lot of things need to be done to ensure that the election goes off smoothly and that everybody can participate. That takes resources and time, and the resources aren’t thus far coming quickly enough. The planning needs to happen soon in order to ensure that the diverse communities that we have in this country are going to have voting options that make sense for them.

Myrna Perez '03

A number of states are planning to begin or to expand vote-by-mail. For voting-rights advocates who have been pushing for expanded voting methods—including mail-in ballots, early in-person voting, and no-excuses absentee ballots—is this good news? 

It is a strategic mistake to try and use the coronavirus as an excuse to cement reforms. What we should do instead is focus on what voters need in order to vote safely and securely in this upcoming election. Voters are going to need a lot of options. We need access to mail ballots, but we also need in-person options for voters who don’t have reliable mail service and for the folks who have visual or physical impairments, which makes working with the mail difficult. We need to do public education in a variety of settings, and in different languages, to make sure that folks who need to hear about these new options are able to get the information that they need.

One of the things I get frustrated with is that, in these times of crisis, what I’m hearing from some quarters is a narrowing of options. This is not the time to constrict options to vote. This is when we have to expand options and give voters more choices in how they vote.

At least 15 states have delayed their primary elections. Is that going to cause problems? Wisconsin held its primary on April 7 despite concerns that in-person voting would spread the virus and complaints about access to absentee and mail ballots. Can primary elections be held safely? Will the November election have to be postponed?

The Wisconsin primary election was both horrifying and inspiring. It was horrifying to see pictures of voters in homemade protective gear waiting in line to vote. But, it was also inspiring to see that so many people care about their fundamental right to vote that they were going to be undeterred by an international pandemic. Politicians need to take notice of how important the right to vote is to Americans but figure out how to have voters vote without endangering themselves or the public health.

The states that are moving their primaries must make sure that these elections, when they take place, are able to run smoothly. That means using the time wisely and planning for early voting and safe in-person polling options, such as having enough poll workers to answer questions and enough space to do the physical distancing that they need to do. They need to make sure that every eligible voter who wants an absentee or a mail ballot gets one. It would be a gross waste to move the election, cause all the frustration—and any dropoff in voter turnout that may occur— and not take advantage of the time to make sure everything is done correctly for a future time.

Moving the general election is not something anybody should be considering. It’s not legal; it’s not appropriate. We have plenty of time to be thinking about how to run our election safely in November. That time needs to be well spent, and the planning needs to start now.

Even in years when there is no national emergency, there are difficulties with elections, including persistently long lines at polls and voter ID challenges. Are you optimistic that the 2020 presidential election will run smoothly despite the COVID-19 crisis?

If there is any silver lining to this situation, it is that it has highlighted the important need for resiliency planning and contingency planning for elections. Our elections are the way we resolve our political differences. Our vote is how we express the direction we want our country to go in. So there need to be plans in order to conduct elections in the face of an emergency. This year it’s the coronavirus; in past years, it’s been hurricanes and tornadoes; in future years, it may be cybercriminals undermining our technological infrastructure. Elections are too important not to have scenario-planning for things going wrong, so we can make sure we have the policies in place to proceed. 

Could the legitimacy of the election results be open to question because of the virus crisis? 

I’m working many, many hours a day to try and prevent that from happening.

There’s a never-ending parade of “horribles” that we can spend our time worrying about. Or we can be part of the solution. That is how I choose to spend my energy. That’s why I’m a civil rights lawyer. I believe that if we work long enough and hard enough, we can change behavior and we can bend the arc of history more in the direction of justice.