Federal Agencies Helping to Protect and Expand Voting Rights

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All levels of government have a role to play in defending our democracy, from city councils to the president. Last March, President Biden issued an executive order, Promoting access to votingleading “a whole-of-government effort to promote information about the voting process and to build the ability of all eligible Americans to participate in our democracy.”

Since then, federal government agencies have worked to understand the barriers to voting that affect their constituents. Last week, amid ongoing commemorations of the Executive Order’s first anniversary and the 57and anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery marches, came several new announcements.

Electors with Disabilities

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released a new report, Promoting Access to the Vote: Recommendations for Removing Barriers to Private and Independent Voting for People with Disabilities, identifying more than twenty specific barriers to voting for people in the disability community. They include ineffective training of poll workers on people’s varied needs as well as problems with the voting technology itself.

The NIST report reviews all aspects of the voting process: mail-in voting, voting technology for in-person voting, polling locations, as well as training and documentation for poll workers. It points out problems and makes recommendations to eliminate them.

Native American Voting Rights

The President’s March 2021 executive order also established an Interagency Steering Group on Native American Suffrage to study challenges faced by Indigenous voters and recommend actions to address them. Their report released last week urges Congress to pass the Native American Voting Rights Act, which was included in the Freedom to Vote Act: The John Lewis Voting Rights Act. He also notes that individual states can (and should) pass similar laws, like Nevada, Colorado and Washington.

The group also recommended ensuring that local election offices and polling places are easily accessible to the Indigenous communities they serve; adding routes, staffing, and overtime for United States Postal Service offices serving Indigenous communities; and ensuring the availability of ballot translation materials for regions serving Indigenous communities.

Paid leave for federal employees

The Office of Personnel Management has also issued new guidelines for Federal Employee Paid Leave for Elections. Federal employees can now take up to four hours of administrative leave to vote. They can also use four hours of paid leave to serve as scrutineers or nonpartisan observers.

Voting register

Many other agencies have issued guidelines so that their local offices can become voter registration locations. This includes the US Small Business Administration, Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Veterans Affairs and others. The full list of government agency reports can be found at this fact sheet published by the White House.

These reports and recommendations are important. Understanding what prevents people from voting and having their votes count is a necessary step to fully realizing the promise of our democracy. Now we need to keep the pressure on the White House to make sure the agencies implement the suggestions at the local, state and federal levels. And we must continue to fight to pass the federal voting protections that are urgently needed to protect access to the ballot for all Americans.

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