A Time for Heroes: Voting during COVID and Curfews in DC

By LCV Voting Rights Program Director Justin Kwasa

The League of Conservation Voters believes that our earth is worth fighting for and we live that mission by voting for pro-environment candidates EVERY election. Below are the stories of four of our colleagues who were determined to have their voices heard, despite the numerous barriers faced during the Washington DC Primary on June 2nd. These barriers included: the reduction of polling places from the normal 144 locations to just 20 due to concern around the coronavirus and the implementation of a 7pm curfew in response to ongoing protests, despite the polls closing at 8pm. A combination of these and other factors lead to under resourced and over saturated polling places that had voters standing in line for hours. Their experiences highlight multiple reasons why the Senate MUST pass the voting sections of The Heroes Act, which will provide funding to implement necessary voter protections across the county this November. 

Before Election Day 

While vote-by-mail is a great way to vote safely and securely, occasionally mistakes are made. Our colleagues, unfortunately, found that out first-hand.  

Megan from LCV’s Campaigns Team – My husband and I both requested absentee ballots on May 26th. Several days later, his came, mine never did. We had been staying with family out of town so there was no option for me to vote in person. 

Julie from LCV’s Chispa Program– I requested my mail-in ballot ahead of the deadline. I checked my mailbox every day, eager to send it back with my vote(s) to avoid going in-person, because hello — we are still in the middle of a pandemic! Voting day finally came, and I excitedly checked my mailbox one last time, but unfortunately not a single ballot in sight. I was feeling both angry and upset that my roommate received her’s in the mail because we both requested it on the same day. 

Kent from LCV’s Development Team – Having just moved from Washington state where we were registered in December, my wife and I were prioritizing changing our voter registration before the primaries, but, once the pandemic hit, registering to vote kept getting moved to the backburner. Once we figured out we needed to register, allow enough time for the registration to process, and then request an absentee ballot, we realized we were too late.  Instead, we registered to vote same-day, which we did on Election Day, but to us, same-day registration was confusing — it seemed unclear if you could register to vote in person during early voting because the website only mentioned registering to vote on Election Day.

How HEROES Helps: The funds from HEROES could be invested in upgrading the infrastructure election officials use to process, track, and count absentee ballots efficiently. 

 

Changing plans

Once our colleagues realized they would not get their mailed ballot on Election Day, they rushed to get in line at local polling places. Not everyone has the luxury to uproot their day like this, which is why ample polling locations are also needed in addition to vote-by-mail. 

Julie – If I could use one word to describe my voting experience on June 2nd, I would easily go with disastrous! At about 2 pm on the day of, I realized that my ballot did not make it to my mailbox, so I quickly cleared my schedule for the rest of the day and practically jogged to the nearest polling place. I was unsure of how long the line would be, but I had a gut feeling that it would not be a short one! 

Elizabeth from LCV’s Membership and Online Engagement Team – Voting in the midst of the dual crises of racial injustice and COVID-19 was an entirely new and challenging experience for me. My experience voting on June 2nd comprised waiting in a slow moving line for hours as a police enforced curfew descended on DC due to the ongoing protests against the police murders of Black people, systemic police brutality, and racial injustice. 

How HEROES Helps: The election funds from HEROES could be used to make Election Day lines move quicker through investments in: updated voting machines, improved poll worker training and proper sanitation of voting places.

 

Waiting in line

Our colleagues were determined to vote despite the clear health risks. NO ONE should have to risk their health and safety to exercise their right to vote. 

Elizabeth – I chose to vote in DC’s historic U Street Corridor – known as Black Broadway – and since all polling places in DC were open to residents from any part of the city, there were several hundred people in line before me when I arrived at 4 pm. So many people were there that the line stretched across multiple city blocks – which resulted in a slow march to the ballot box. 

Kent – My wife and I voted at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Ward 5. We got in the line sometime between 2 and 2:30 pm. Because of how poorly Mayor Bowser had clarified that polling places would be exempt from the curfew, we wanted to make sure we’d get through the line with plenty of time. We are lucky because we live within walking distance of Turkey Thicket.

Julie At approximately 3 pm, the line was wrapped around the corner from the community center and led to the nearby park. Over 200 people waited in line, wearing masks and some even brought folding chairs and coolers! As I looked around, the people in the line reflected the community — mostly older Black and Latinx people and some younger white women sprinkled throughout. I looked at my roommate as we approached the end of the line and asked her if this was even worth it. But she convinced me to stay and thus we began our live tweeting voting adventure. 

 

…still in line

The physical dangers our colleague took standing in line weren’t just limited to the coronavirus. A 7pm curfew was ordered by the mayor of DC, despite the polls closing at 8pm. This meant that voters waiting in line were literally breaking the law to cast their vote. Despite the dangers, a sense of community solidarity emerged. 

Julie Five hours later, a slice of cheese pizza and countless conversations with folks in line, we finally made it to the voting booth! During the five hour saga, we witnessed a police brigade ride by on bicycles after Mayor Bowser’s 7 pm curfew, which was implemented because of the protests. My roommate and I were triggered to see them because we both grew up in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood in Los Angeles and now live in a predominantly Black community in DC — in both places we have seen how the police have terrorized community members for no reason. We were worried that they would instigate violence against us — like we saw them do unto other people of color at the protests downtown — and we were out past curfew. Thankfully they let us be, and I was able to submit my ballot at 9 pm. 

Kent – One lady who had finished voting walked outside and was shouting “I AM PROUD ABOUT EVERYONE WHO IS VOTING TODAY!” over and over. Later in the line, I caught bits and pieces of a conversation a Black mother was having with her son (who seemed just old enough that he could have been voting for the first time) about how it’s not only voting, but knowing about the issues that you’re voting on that allows those who vote to change how things happen in our country. Another guy right behind us was talking to a friend and said that waiting in that line was the price to pay for democracy. It wasn’t lost on me that at least 70% of the folks waiting in line were Black/POC, and how barriers like these are a common occurrence for so many in my neighborhood.

Elizabeth – Despite the challenges, during the four long hours I spent in line, I was also struck by a sense of community with people in my neighborhood and the simple kindnesses people extended to each other during the long wait. From people coming out of their houses with snacks and water to a couple bringing their TV outside so those of us in line could watch the nightly news with them, to the local business owners who kept coming out to ensure that we  had everything we needed, I was once again reminded of how lucky I am to live in a community as vibrant, diverse, and kind as Northwest DC.  

How HEROES Helps: The funds from HEROES could help limit the consolidation of polling places and expand early voting period. These are two changes that we know will benefit communities of color, who often are the most silenced by restrictive voting laws.

 

Casting a ballot

Eventually, all of our colleagues were able to vote, but even that looked different depending on the situation.  

Kent – It took us at least two and a half hours to get through the line. There were only 2-3 people checking voters in, including those registering same-day, and with how slowly it was moving, it seemed pretty ridiculous they didn’t have more poll workers checking people in. There were 8-10 voting machines, but with how slowly people were being checked in, only 1-2 were being used at a time.

Megan – I was telling a friend how upset I was that I wouldn’t be able to vote and he told me he had gotten an email from Councilmember Elissa Silverman saying there was an option to vote by email. Per the instructions, I sent an email saying I requested an absentee ballot that never came. A few hours later, I received an email with instructions on how to vote by email. I never got any kind of receipt, so I’m not sure if my vote counted.

How HEROES Helps: The funds from HEROES could help improve election official’s ability to educate the public about their voting options and changes in voting procedures. 

 

What changes would you like to see DC make for November?  

Some final thoughts from our colleagues. 

Megan – Accountability, so that everyone who requests a ballot gets one. 

Julie – While we were in line, we read that half of the polling places in our Ward were closed due to COVID-19. While I appreciate the concern for our safety in the middle of a public health crisis, looking back, they definitely should’ve kept all of the polling places previously open with the updated safety measures for folks that still wanted to vote in person. The Board of Elections should update their operations to guarantee vote-by-mail for ALL in November. 

Kent – I’m hoping that prior to Election Day DC has more polling places open, has clearer communications about how to request an absentee ballot, has more poll workers per location, and has longer periods of early voting—basically anything that’s going to spread out voters so that it’s much easier and safer to vote.

Elizabeth – The biggest change I would like to see is for the Senate to vote to grant DC statehood so that I – and the hundreds of thousands of other residents of DC — can have elected leaders in Congress who will advocate for our values, needs, and priorities. 

 

Join us in the fight to protect our democracy and call on Congress to pass a “Super” Heroes Act that will invest $4 billion to ensure that 2020 elections are safe, secure, and accessible for communities across the nation and use this resource to find out how you can Vote by Mail in your state.

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