With no known end date, there’s a chance that coronavirus-related physical distancing measures could affect the November general election — and since millenials and Gen Z constitute the biggest voting bloc in 2020, young people’s voting rights are among the most at risk.
That’s why Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) are sponsoring the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act to establish federal vote-by-mail, which would allow every voter to cast a ballot safely from home without having to go through the laborious process of requesting an absentee ballot, as is required in many states (if they offer absentee ballots at all).
This is good news for many voters, and especially the young people who faced significant obstacles to vote even before COVID-19. Some states don’t accept student IDs as one of the forms of identification needed for voter registration, for example, which is often the only form of ID for many students. During the Democratic primaries, hours-long lines at campus polling centers in states like Texas and Michigan also deterred students with jobs and restrictive class schedules from casting votes. Numerous campuses didn’t have a polling center at all, given that hundreds of on-campus sites have been shut down in recent years. Other students were denied absentee ballots but couldn’t travel to their home states in order to vote. And across the country, a matrix of complicated and intentionally confusing voting regulations deter first-time and young voters from participating in the democratic process. A coronavirus quarantine is the last thing young voters should need to worry about.
Senator Klobuchar, who has a record of fighting for secure and accessible voting, spoke with MTV News about how her new legislation would impact young people’s voting rights in light of the pandemic.
MTV News: What are the main things the National Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act would do, especially pertaining to young voters?
Senator Amy Klobuchar: There are always efforts to make it hard for people to vote, and for the good of our democracy, we need to make it easier. And when you have this situation where people have to choose between their health or voting, it makes no sense. That's why we want to make it easier for people to vote and what this legislation would do is it makes it easier to vote by mail. And that's great for everyone — no matter how old you are. You won't have to go [to the polls] to vote and violate all these rules about not congregating together.
The second thing is we want to have the polls open early by maybe 20 days. And that's good for young voters because you might have classes, you might have something you're doing that day, and you can't go on election day.
The third thing is actually training younger people to be poll workers because we're still going to have the polls open and we don't know where we're gonna be with this virus by November. But we do know if it's still around, you don't want a lot of seniors working there. And by then I hope we have a test to show, “Are you immune? Have you built up immunities?” So then you want to train new poll workers and I can just imagine that a lot of young people would want to fill in and do their patriotic duty there to help out the day of the polls like we've never seen before.
MTV News: Do you think it could also increase youth turnout in November?
Klobuchar: I hope so, because I think we know there's a lot of reasons for young people to vote, things like climate change and gun safety. We've seen no advancement on these issues in the last few years and those are things that really matter to this generation.
My daughter is 24. She's kind of in her own little world right now in New York City, like so many others staying home right now. But I see her and her friends and, you know, it's our whole world in front of them. And if other people aren't going to care about climate change or gun safety or student loans, then they've got to vote so that they make sure we have people in office who are going to stand up for them.
MTV News: The Senate recently passed the coronavirus stimulus package. How would that affect this bill, if at all?
Klobuchar: Well, there's some money in it for early voting. It was hard to get my Republican colleagues to agree but we got $400 million, which isn't nearly as much as a lot of the groups think we're gonna need. Remember, there are 16 states that still have rules that aren't that great where they need a bunch of reasons to even get an early ballot, so we need to change those rules. And also, it's postage, things like that — we're gonna have to have with [the Ballot Act.]
There are states like Colorado and Oregon that are ahead of their times and they do almost all their voting this way, so there's no reason we couldn't change. But we know in just these eight months, not every state is going to change in that time. We've got to be realistic. But if you can get more states and more voters to be able to do it that way, it'll be safer for everyone.
MTV News: Who or what is the biggest hurdle to passing the bill?
Klobuchar: Well, there has been opposition. The president actually kind of went after this — which, who knows what that means? But for the most part, it's been bipartisan. The Republican Secretary of State, as well as the Democratic ones for each state, they want funding. They want to change. They want to do this. And there's not really a choice.
You saw governors having to postpone primary elections at the last minute. Imagine if that happened with the real election in November and we couldn't have it. That can't happen. So you see why we're planning ahead like this. We can't have individuals — even if it's for a good reason — just say, “Oh, we're not going to have an election tomorrow.” That's the reason to plan ahead.
MTV News: What are the risks if this doesn't pass, especially pertaining to youth voter rights?
Klobuchar: We want people to vote. So the risks are that people wouldn't vote because they're afraid of getting the coronavirus or something. We hope this thing will be under control by then, but we know, based on the projections, we can’t be sure.
And by the way, we should be changing our systems anyway. There’s all kinds of good security reasons as well to do it and it just makes it easier in the modern world to vote. You add early voting to that and same-day registration — we should just make voting something that everyone does instead of something that's a huge hassle to do.
MTV News: And speaking of security, some detractors believe that a national vote-by-mail system might increase voter fraud, which statistically we know isn't true. But are there any provisions for that?
Klobuchar: Well, I love that you know your statistics. Yes, I mean, we've made it very clear what the money can be used for. It can't be used for things that are not secure. That's important. And we also want to have backup paper ballots. That's something I've been pushing for for years now. A Republican with me — James Lankford, who's more conservative and from Oklahoma — we have a bill that would require states, if they get any federal money, to have backup paper ballots and do auditing. We still have a dozen states, including the whole state of New Jersey, that don't have backup paper ballots. So there's no way they know if there's hacking. And if you think the Russians don't know what those states are — oh, they know. You could have a whole election in question if you don't have the backup, so we've been pushing the states to do that.
One of the beauties of the mail-in ballots is it's obviously a paper ballot. They have to mail it. So it makes it easier to check things. Plus, you want the backups for the polling locations. In fact, our whole democracy was founded on this idea that we didn't want to be bossed around by another country. Back then, it was England — we wanted the right to make our own decisions. This idea that we would even consider not protecting ourselves from foreign interference in a democracy makes no sense at all.
MTV News: Would this bill cover just this current pandemic period?
Klobuchar: It is for this period right now — the money would be. But if you change systems and you would adjust how each state is spending their money anyway, it would help them get it up and going in a much bigger way than they have now.
MTV News: Well, thank you so much for your time. Senator, I know this is a very intense and busy week for all of us, including yourself with your husband in the hospital.
Klobuchar: My husband's doing a little better. You know, he got the coronavirus, so he's been in the hospital. But we just keep working here. I think a lot of people are going to go through the same thing. You can't even visit family members.
My daughter played a digital game night with her boyfriend's family last night, so I think people are just going to have to adapt and find ways to do this.
MTV News: Do you know which digital games she played?
Klobuchar: I don't know. She's going to be mad I even brought this up.