Some 60 million Americans have already voted in the 2020 general election, thanks to a widespread expansion of mail-in and early voting options during the coronavirus pandemic. Still, in the coming days leading up to Nov. 3, millions more will head out to cast their votes: A recent Pew Research survey found that 33% of people plan to vote on Election Day while another 21% plan to vote early in person.
But voting in person poses accessibility issues that can suppress participation, particularly for those who do not have a car or reliable public transportation, or those who live far away from their polling place. While 66% of voters with access to a car voted in the 2018 general election, just 36% of voters without access to a car voted, according to recent research from professors at Harvard University and Boston University.
Safety precautions due to the coronavirus pandemic lead to further challenges. As a result, several voting rights groups have expanded their efforts to provide free or low-cost and safe transportation during early voting and on Election Day.
Many companies and nonprofits are partnering with ridesharing services Lyft and Uber to provide discounted or free rides to voters. Starbucks, for example, is providing all employees with a free one-way Lyft ride worth up to $75 to cast their vote at a polling location, volunteer as a poll worker or drop off their ballot at a post office or other voting location.
Another group partnering with Lyft is the National Federation of the Blind. Texas affiliate president Norma Crosby says that while the state has allowed people to vote by mail if they cite a disability or illness, many visually impaired voters cannot fill out a paper ballot without assistance. And others may be concerned about the state of mail-in voting.
"It had been my hope to vote by mail this year because I have an immune system compromise," Crosby says, "but because of some of the problems related to the mail system recently, I decided to vote in-person."
Interested voters in need of a ride to the polls can call their local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind for an exclusive discount code with Lyft. Crosby says her office has seen increasing interest in the offer since early voting in Texas began Oct. 13. Nationally, the organization also helps arrange free rides to voters who live farther away from a voting site or drop box location, or in areas where Lyft doesn't operate.
Crosby adds that people with disabilities, who are more likely to be immunocompromised, can also check if curbside voting is available to them, as it is in Texas.
Free and reduced-cost transit could be a lifeline to people who have to travel farther to vote this year. An investigation from Vice News found that nearly 21,000 polling places were eliminated heading into the 2020 U.S. election, which accounts for a 20% drop compared to 2016. While site shutdowns in some states correspond with a massive shift to mail-in voting or consolidations into bigger voting centers, not all of them do. According to Vice, five states that refused to allow mail voting for most people also cut down their number of voting sites, including Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
These cost-cutting measures and forms of voter suppression could disproportionately impact young, lower-income, Black, Hispanic and disabled voters.
Additionally, fewer groups are providing transit services due to health concerns in some areas hard-hit by the coronavirus, says Bruce Colburn, program coordinator for Souls to the Polls in Milwaukee, a group that focuses on increasing voter turnout in Black communities. So at his organization, roughly 50 to 60 volunteers from across the country are answering calls to a hotline to connect voters in Milwaukee and the surrounding area to a free Uber or Lyft ride to their polling place.
Coburn says partnering with these rideshare companies allows them to expand their outreach beyond city limits and ensures drivers are trained to observe coronavirus safety guidelines, such as requiring a mask, following cleaning protocols and ensuring passengers stay in the backseat. Voters can call the hotline after they're done voting for a ride back home, too.
"We're glad to work with agencies that do this for a living and also have volunteers to make sure people are comfortable in using the service," Coburn says. He adds that more volunteers have taken interest in supporting Milwaukee's Souls to the Polls efforts since the spring primaries, and that recruitment efforts are ongoing.
Many local chapters of civic engagement, community, government and faith-based groups have networks of volunteer drivers who can arrange free transportation to voting sites. Some cities that have consolidated polling locations into major voting centers are offering free public transit to vote.
Bicyclists have their own options to get to the polls safely: Members of the North American Bike Association, including Bird and other bike-sharing programs, will offer free or reduced-cost bike rides to voters on Nov. 3.
And VoteRiders, a nonpartisan nonprofit with 700 partner organizations, has a Voter ID Helpline and Chatbot that answers questions about local transportation efforts to voting sites, says founder and president Kathleen Unger.
Given all the changes to the voting process this year, it's crucial voters plan ahead and know exactly how they will cast their ballot, says Jeanete Senecal, senior director of mission impact for the League of Women Voters. Check to see your best location options if you plan to drop off your ballot at a drop box or voting site. Also check the address and hours of operations for your early voting site, she adds, as it could be different from your designated polling site for Election Day. Your Election Day voting site could also be a different location than in the past. Wherever you're headed, give yourself ample time to get there safely.
As with any election, Senecal adds, determine if your state or jurisdiction requires you bring any kind of identification in order to vote. Resources like vote411.org and VoteRiders can help voters understand and protect their rights leading up to and on Election Day.
"Even if you've voted for decades, you may not know the ins and outs of this new process," Senecal says. Additionally, "an important message to all voters is: Because we are in an unprecedented election cycle between the pandemic and increased voter interest, it's going to take a while in some jurisdictions for all the ballots to be counted. But it's the process working when election officials are taking time to count every vote."