Jessica King’s absentee ballot application never arrived. She tried to vote early at her polling location near her home in Albany, Georgia — but left when the crowd made social distancing impossible.
Finally, thanks to an early alarm on Election Day and a nearly hourlong wait, King, 27, was able to vote in the state’s June primary.
The obstacles she encountered to safely casting a ballot several months into a pandemic were frustratingly familiar to her as a Black voter.
“As a person of color, the worry that my vote won’t get counted is always there,” King, who works at a nonprofit community advocacy group in Albany, said in an interview. “It’s not because we don’t trust the system, it’s because the experiences we have had. History has taught us that people of color — our vote does not get counted when it really matters.”
Voting by mail has been championed — rightly, experts say — as the safest way to participate in the 2020 election while the nation remains under threat from the coronavirus, which has killed more than 160,000 and sickened millions, with no end in sight. Many of those same experts have for years advocated the expansion of mail voting as a proven way to increase participation in a democracy where an estimated 43 percent of the eligible population, for one reason or another, does not vote.
But the changes that states are scrambling to make ahead of November to help protect voters from COVID-19 — expanding their mail and absentee voting systems while reducing the number of polling locations — risk supersizing the issues of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement that Black, Hispanic and other voters of color have already spent generations fighting.
The cause was dear to the late Rep. John Lewis, the longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia and a giant of the civil rights movement, who was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, for marching in support of voting rights in March of 1965 at a time when poll taxes and literacy tests were written into law.
Such rampant discrimination across the country was ultimately met with the landmark Voting Rights Act 55 years ago, which devoted significant federal resources to enfranchise Black voters when the states wouldn’t. Federal examiners went to the South, registering tens of thousands of Black voters when county clerks refused. States and counties with a history of discrimination were required to prove to the Department of Justice that new election rules wouldn’t disenfranchise voters of color.
For the next half-century, civil rights leaders, voting rights advocates and the Department of Justice fought to make more fair an election system designed for white landowning men.
And while Black voters no longer must guess the number of jelly beans in a jar to cast a ballot, inequality persists. States have put in place voter ID requirements and…