Amid concerns the coronavirus pandemic could endanger voters seeking to cast their ballots in the 2020 election, LGBT members of Congress have launched an initiative with the Human Rights Campaign to call on states to expand access to voting by mail, early voting and absentee ballots.
The project — called "Vote Equal, Vote Safe" — is part of a larger endeavor within the Human Rights Campaign to identify the estimated 57 million "equality voters" in the United States — LGBT people or voters who prioritize LGBT rights — and ensure they're taking part in the election.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that early business openings in Georgia and court decisions requiring voters to head to the polls in Wisconsin — both criticized for exposing people to the coronavirus — illustrate why alternative voting is necessary.
"As our nation continues to battle COVID-19, it is clear this pandemic will affect how millions of Americans will vote this fall," David said. "From Wisconsin to Georgia, partisan politicians have put their own political interests ahead of the health and safety of voters. We will not stand for this and will not be silent. Our community has been subjected to voter suppression before and we will not be passive in the face of efforts to disenfranchise us again."
Among the leaders of the initiative are Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the most senior openly gay member of Congress, and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.). Both are co-chairs of the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus.
"During this pandemic, we should be doing everything we can to protect people's health and their access to the ballot box — expanding vote by mail is critical to ensuring that," Takano said in a statement. "I'm grateful for the work HRC is doing to make sure that the voices of our community are being heard, while their safety is prioritized. As someone who votes by mail, I encourage everyone to register to vote, to request a mail ballot, and to exercise their right to vote safely from their home."
Enumerated as goals in a statement on the launch of "Vote Equal, Vote Safe" is online voter registration, same-day voter registration, allowing no excuse absentee voting for everyone, allowing no witness requirement for absentee voting and allowing community organizations to help collect and deliver voted, sealed ballots.
If ballots must be cast in person, the initiative calls for extending early voting times and dates, increasing the number of in-person early voting places and Election Day polling locations and following CDC safety guidance at all in-person voting locations.
As Democrats have pushed for greater access to voting by mail and absentee voting, President Trump and Republicans have resisted those calls. Trump has claimed voting by mail could lead to voter fraud, which critics have denounced as baseless.
Michael Ahrens, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, expressed skepticism about the Human Rights Campaign initiative.
"Republicans want people to vote," Ahrens said. "We actually register more than the DNC does. Democrats and their allies are currently suing several states to remove existing safeguards like ballot signature verification and a ballot receipt deadline of Election Day, safeguards that over 80 percent of voters support. They are also trying to legalize ballot harvesting nationwide, where unaccountable paid activists go door-to-door to collect thousands of ballots, a practice that jeopardizes people's health as well as the security of their ballot. Americans deserve to have confidence in their elections, but many of the Democrats' proposals would actually undermine it."
Also participating in the "Vote Equal, Vote Safe" are Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first out lesbian elected to the Senate, and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
Voting by mail proved crucial in 2018 for the election of Sinema, now the only out bisexual in Congress. Although returns initially showed her opponent, then-candidate Martha McSally, in the lead, Sinema was declared the victor days later after ballots cast by mail were counted.
"Arizonans have voted by mail safely and securely for years, and it's time the rest of the country follow Arizona's lead," Sinema said in a statement. "The Human Rights Campaign's 'Vote Equal, Vote Safe' Initiative will help ensure everyday Americans can exercise our constitutional rights while staying safe during this public health crisis."
The priority states the Human Rights Campaign has identified in the 2020 election: Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. Three of these states — Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania — have changed election laws since the 2018 election to allow for expanded access to the ballot box, according to the organization.
According to HRC, many individuals in minority or underrepresented communities distrust voting by absentee vote or mail voting. As part of the "Vote Equal, Vote Safe" project, the organization says it will work with partners to boost the percentage of voters who vote by mail or absentee.
Joining the Human Rights Campaign and LGBT lawmakers in the effort are Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn), both of whom have been cited as possible running mates for Joseph Biden.
Harris cited the anti-LGBT policy decisions from the Trump administration as reasons to ensure "equality voters" should have a range of options to cast their ballot in November.
"As President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence continue attacks on the LGBTQ community, the stakes couldn't be higher this election for Equality Voters," Harris said. "This is why we must ensure that everyone can safely make their voice heard and have their votes counted as the nation continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. This election year, we have the opportunity to send a powerful message at the ballot box: That anti-equality voices won't win."
As part of this effort, volunteers with the Human Rights Campaign each week on Tuesday have been holding virtual phone bank sessions in which they call potential voters, seek to identify them as "equality voters" and ask them to vote by mail or absentee.
Lucas Acosta, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said the phone-banking efforts have been underway for 12 weeks, but declined to comment on the number of voters contacted.
Not enumerated in the announcement on the launch of "Vote Equal, Vote Safe" are state voter ID laws, which critics say are intended to restrict votes from minorities, youth, the elderly and transgender people whose gender identity may not match the gender marker on their IDs.
Acosta, however, said the project will "definitely" cover voter ID laws and build on efforts to overturn them.
"We will continue to oppose unnecessary, overly stringent voter ID laws and work to undo them in states across the country," Acosta said.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.