Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Curbside and ‘Drive Up’ Voting: Good for Democracy, Good for Our Health

By Emma Jelliffe Published December 28, 2020

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It was of paramount importance that states expand in person voting options through increased numbers of polling stations, including curbside and ‘drive up’ polling stations that accommodate voters who either could not access, or did not feel comfortable accessing, indoor locations. Unfortunately, this option was taken away from Alabama voters after the Supreme Court ruling that banned the use of curbside voting.

The year 2020 will certainly be one for the history books – between the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election, much has happened in the past ten months. During the 2020 presidential election, hundreds of millions individuals across the country cast their votes, marking the highest voter turnout in a long time. Under the circumstances, voters were anxious that all people wanting to exercise their right to vote be able to find a trustworthy way to ensure that their vote was counted while mitigating health risks due to COVID-19 exposure. For those who could successfully request and send in absentee ballots, this was one safe way to avoid crowds at polling stations and the COVID-19 risk that accompanied it. But what about those individuals who wanted, or needed, to vote in person? It was of paramount importance that states expand in person voting options through increased numbers of polling stations, including curbside and ‘drive up’ polling stations that accommodate voters who either could not access, or did not feel comfortable accessing, indoor polling locations. Unfortunately, this option was taken away from Alabama voters after the Supreme Court ruling that banned the use of curbside voting. 

So, what happened in Alabama? Alabama’s conservative secretary of state, John H Merrill, ordered that all counties in Alabama not offer curbside voting for the 2020 presidential election. Even in previous years, several counties in Alabama have offered curbside voting as an option to accommodate voters with disabilities. Nowhere in Alabama law was there any stipulation regarding the provision forbidding of curbside voting, so why end it now? Especially now. As all citizens are living through the coronavirus pandemic, a time filled with heightened uncertainty, dangers, and daily stressors, why make it any more dangerous or stressful to execute citizens’ right to vote? If anything, the opposite should have been occurring— states should have increased the number of available in person voting options through additional polling stations, curbside stations, or drive up stations. This past summer, while many states had their Presidential Primary elections, voters faced increased congestion and long lines due to a serious lack of polling stations, putting them at an increased risk of COVID-19 during a time when several states were facing extremely high case rates. In Kentucky this June, the number of polling locations fell to 200 from 3,700 previously. While partially caused by a shortage of poll workers, this was a dramatic decrease and the opposite of what the country needed. For this past election, and likely those in the future as well, it is necessary to have more polling options, which would  be beneficial for democratic proceedings and as public health. 

In Alabama, following Mr. Merill’s order, several older voters relying on curbside voting, sued under the pretense that this ban was a violation of the Constitution as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act given the current coronavirus pandemic. Last month, Judge Abdul K. Kallon of the Federal District Court in Birmingham Alabama ruled to allow, but not require, counties to offer curbside voting as an option if they so desired. This ruling would permit countries with the infrastructure in place to effectively run curbside polling. However, after a United States Court of Appeals for the 11th district refused to stay Judge Kallon’s ruling, Mr. Merill decided to have the Supreme Court intervene, which resulted in the banning of curbside voting in Alabama. The voters who sued were represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which argued in its brief that curbside voting has been effectively employed in past elections in 2016 and 2018, and that state law gives counties the authority to assist voters with disabilities, which in this case includes high-risk voters due to the coronavirus. In Judge Sonia Sottomayor’s dissent she quoted one of the plaintiffs, a Black man in his 70s with asthma and Parkinson's disease, testified saying, “And while I don’t mind dying to vote... think we’re past that — we’re past that time”, in reference to his ancestors who died fighting for the right to vote. Due to the ruling he was required to wait in line with fellow Alabama voters, who were not required to wear face coverings, and wait through undue exposure in order to exercise his right to vote. 

The effect of this ruling was that in Alabama a subset of the population had a much more difficult time voting, if they were even able to vote at all. Several other states, including Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Virginia, and more, offered curbside or ‘drive-in’ voting this year for those who are elderly or disabled. These curbside accommodations were necessary to prevent the disenfranchisement of disabled individuals who were unable to safely enter the voting place. 

This Alabama ruling likely further exacerbated voting inequalities across racial and socioeconomic lines. In the most recent presidential election of 2016, U.S. Census Voting and Registration Supplement data show that a lower percentage of the non-Hispanic Black population and Hispanic populations cast their votes as compared to the non-Hispanic White population. Furthermore, in terms of total registered votes in the 2016 election, 73.3 percent of votes were cast by non-Hispanic Whites, only 11.9 percent of votes were from non-Hispanic Blacks, 5.5 percent were Other Race (non-Hispanic), and 9.2 percent were Hispanic. It is clear that already in the United States, racial minority populations face barriers to exercising their right to vote and are more likely to face disenfranchisement. These same populations are also at an increased risk for COVID-19 due to systematic health and social inequalities, as recent data shows that Black and Hispanic populations represent a disproportionate number of cases and deaths due to COVID-19. Inequalities in the social determinants of health, such as being more likely to work essential jobs, have limited access to health insurance, live in crowded housing conditions, and suffer from pre-existing conditions put these individuals at risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Many of them, such as Howard Porter Jr. who was quoted testifying above, qualify as disabled voters during the pandemic and therefore should be provided accommodations necessary, such as curbside or ‘drive in’ voting. 

Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic will certainly influence the course of future responses to public health crises as well as likely aspects of daily life. One of these lessons should be the necessary advanced preparation of a diverse array of voting options for all citizens in order that disabled individuals do not face disenfranchisement. Opposite of what happened in Alabama in the 2020 Presidential election, drive-in and curbside voting options should be expanded. Due to the lack of infrastructure to support safe voting options for all citizens during the COVID-19  pandemic, some citizens lost their right to vote in arguably one of the most important elections in decades. The right to vote is an essential part of the democratic process that should be protected and preserved, not made more difficult or dangerous. The pandemic has already taken so much, but this is an opportunity to learn from mistakes and prevent the future disenfranchisement of disabled individuals in elections to come.