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March 15, 2021

An Odd Year Like No Other

Aliya Bhatia

The day after Christmas, I drove an elder to vote early in the Georgia runoffs. I asked her why she was voting. She responded that she wanted to elect leaders who put people over money. She was voting for democracy. 

The vision of democracy that she treasures remains in peril: Almost every state legislature is revisiting their voting laws – some for better, but too often for worse. 

In the US, we often fall into a cycle where we pay close attention to the health of our democracy every 4 years. When we are lucky, we may get closer to an even-year cycle where our interest peaks for midterms, governor’s races, and other major milestones. 

But as our advisor Miles Rapoport has shared with us, this year is an odd year like no other – and it deserves both our immediate attention and our commitment to sustain our interest even when it isn’t clear who or what is directly on the ballot. 

In a conversation with the Brennan Center last week, they commented that while COVID-19 forced the hands of state and local governments across the country, that many saw this as a necessity because of COVID – not because of democracy. So far, the heightened access to the ballot in a year otherwise marked by the restrictions of a pandemic is currently playing out as an ironic fluke in peril of being undone, not as a model that should permeate both our democratic infrastructure specifically and our approach to designing policy generally. 

Even in the context of a race where our elections leadership worked around the clock and persisted through both time pressures and death threats, the final day of the Georgia runoff shows why expanded access is so critical. On that day, I drove three women to the polls. One had requested an absentee ballot that never showed up. Her car had broken down so she needed help getting to the polls on election day. Another – a visually impaired woman – had gone with a friend to vote early, but had landed up at the wrong location. Yet another had tried to go in the morning before her shift at Goodwill, but the line was too long. She took her “lunch break” to go vote. All three of these women embody the human stories that build our democracy, along with the social and economic landmines hidden on the path to the ballot box. 

When the best intentioned people try to vote early and the best intentioned elections officials try to make that possible, and when it is still hard to vote, the last thing we should be doing is making it any harder than it already is. 

It does not have to be this way. And it isn’t this way everywhere. 

There are 700 bills introduced in state legislatures around the US to expand access to the ballot. Many of these are in unlikely places – Texas, Mississippi, and Missouri (I have worked in two of three of those states – I say “unlikely” with the love of a Southern neighbor). The authors of these bills see something that is now also echoed in the recent COVID relief package – that we have an imperative to design policy to support our most vulnerable, not to appease our most skeptical. 

If we take this odd year as one that is truly odd in multiple ways – not just the final digit of 2021 but in its unique position following upon a disruptive year – then we find ourselves in an odd year like no other. It is not simply the year after a Presidential election. It is a year when we are defining our new normal. 

That new normal can be remarkable or regressive. We each play some part in pushing for the remarkable.

Aliya Bhatia