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Digital Inclusion

States Must Increase Accessibility of Both In-Person and Remote Voting, Say Brookings Panelists

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Screenshot of Brookings Institution panelists

July 15, 2020 — The November election will be extremely vulnerable to widespread voter suppression, making it increasingly important for states to have robust plans for both absentee and in-person voting, said Brookings Institution panelists Wednesday.

On what was formerly scheduled to be the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Brookings fellows discussed political challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, not only for candidates navigating a struggling economy and ongoing social unrest, but for individuals facing substantial barriers to voting.

In spite of repeated claims from President Donald Trump that mail-in voting is dangerously fraudulent, the practice is not new. Only 62 percent of ballots in the 2018 elections were cast in person, pointed out Elaine Kamarck, founding director of the Brookings Institution Center for Effective Public Management.

However, the scale at which remote voting may be required in November could prove disastrous for states without the necessary infrastructure, she said.

“If we ever do get another stimulus bill, which we may, hopefully there will be some more money in there for states,” Kamarck said. “And it’s got to happen pretty soon, because we’re looking at November and states really need to ramp up their game in order to be able to count quickly.”

Ease of voting varies from state to state

Kamarck recently worked on the development of a scorecard evaluating the difficulty of remote voting on a state-by-state basis. The scores depend on metrics such as the ease of requesting, completing and submitting mail-in ballots.

The research left her with two main conclusions, Kamarck said.

“One is that states do need to make [absentee voting] easy to do, and they need to educate voters on how to do so,” she explained. “But the second, and this we’ve learned from the primaries, is that states still need to provide in person voting.”

Having physical polling locations is especially important in states that have historically not had high rates of absentee voting, Kamarck added.

“In Oregon, they’ve been voting by mail for 20 years — they don’t have scandals, they don’t have corruption, they don’t have confusion,” she said. “But in states that are making this big leap, you need a failsafe method, you need a way that if the ballot doesn’t come to your house, you can still go to a polling place.”

Some of the scorecard’s results were unexpected, said John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management. For example, Connecticut scored significantly lower than surrounding states.

“Not only does voter suppression happen at the state level, but it can really happen at the local level,” he said. “Some people have the idea that, ‘We have a governor who’s in favor of voting rights,’ … but given the state and local nature of voting and vote counting, that is not a real protection against suppression.”

Panelists agreed that a significant amount of preparation must take place to ensure that voting goes more smoothly in November than it did during primary elections in states like Georgia.

“There were some fairly disastrous experiences…where people were waiting four to five hours to cast their ballots,” said Camille Busette, director of Brookings’ Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative. “Even though this might not be the case, it certainly appears to be one of the ways in which you can suppress the vote among communities of color.”

“This can really become a vehicle for voter suppression…if something serious isn’t addressed with it, it’s certainly going to play out in real time during the November election,” Hudak agreed.

In-person and absentee voting both raise voter suppression concerns

Busette pointed to research showing that even simply moving a polling place can suppress voter turnout by about two percent.

“Adding that up, that can be fairly serious,” she said.

The process of counting absentee ballots is another area vulnerable to voter suppression, especially if states are unable to obtain the scanners and other equipment necessary to count an unprecedented number of mailed ballots, Busette said.

States are now faced with the challenge of both accommodating a dramatic increase in absentee ballot requests and also recruiting enough poll workers to keep polling places open, Kamarck said.

“The problem with that, of course, is that traditionally poll workers are retired people, are people aged 65 and over,” she explained. “They are the very age group that does not want to be sitting there in a closed place facing the public for eight to ten hours a day.”

In addition to new challenges brought on by the pandemic, the country has yet to fully grapple with election security issues that arose in 2016, said Molly Reynolds, a senior governance studies fellow at Brookings.

“It’s really hard to manipulate a national election because of how decentralized our election operations are, but it’s also really hard to make it run smoothly,” she said.

Development Associate Emily McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for campus publication Student Life. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer skills to underprivileged children in six cities across Southern California.

Digital Inclusion

Digital Inclusion Week Highlights Focus on Broadband-Disconnected Urban Residents

Most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans, says NDIA.

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Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance

WASHINGTON, October 8, 2021 – Experts on digital empowerment pressed the federal government to maintain a focus on broadband equity during a Wednesday event, hosted on Wednesday by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance as part of “National Digital Inclusion Week.”

Speaking about the broader agenda for NDIA, Angela Siefer, the non-profit group’s executive director, said that NDIA’s purpose was to provide “peer-to-peer learning. We get the conversation started. Everything we get is from boots on the ground.”

This theme of community-informed practice and knowledge sharing echoed throughout the presentation.

Siefer said that NDIA “learned that digital redlining is happening in Cleveland” from discoveries that came from having boots on the ground and from living there.

“Digital redlining” refers to discrimination by ISPs in deployment, maintenance, upgrade or delivery of services. Often, as was alleged in Cleveland, NDIA accused AT&T of avoiding making fiber upgrades to broadband infrastructure. The group has also published reports with the Communications Workers of America making similar charges.

These discoveries have built momentum for some, including New York Democratic Rep. Yvette Clark’s Anti-Digital Redlining Act, introduced in August. The bill attempts to ban systematic broadband underinvestment in low-income communities.

Panelists argued that federal government perpetuates digital divide

Underinvestment in historically excluded communities extends beyond large corporations’ – it includes the U.S. federal government’s broadband investment approach. Paolo Balboa, NDIA’s programs and data manager, said that federal government perpetuates racism within the digital divide.

Balboa discussed how federal broadband programs focus funds on expanding availability to residents in unserved and underserved rural areas, but ignore the many – often black and brown – urban Americans lacking high-speed internet access.

But NDIA’s research found that most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans. Americans who lack home broadband service for reasons besides local network availability are disproportionately of color, says NDIA.

The panelists argued that federal policies directed at closing the digital divide by spending primarily on rural infrastructure leaves out the digital inclusion programs urban and some rural inhabitants need.

Amy Huffman, Munirih Jester, Paolo Balboa, Miles Miller

In finding that fewer than 5 % of the bulk of American households without home broadband are rural, NDIA argues for a federal policy approach centering cost of access as the solution to connecting more families of color. The officials advocate a broader focus that includes the experiences of urban city and county residents for whom cost is the major barrier.

Munirih Jester, NDIA programs director said that NDIA keeps an active list of free and low-cost internet plan available for low-income households, and how they may access it to find affordable ISPs.

Amy Huffman, NDIA policy director, discussed the provision of COVID-19 response funding. She highlighted organization’s resources to raise awareness of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, a program to help households afford Internet service during the pandemic.

This year, more than 100 events were registered as part of this week’s Digital Inclusion week, with many visible on the NDIA blog, said Yvette Scorse, NDIA Communications Director.

In a statement this Monday, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Infrastructure Agency spotlighted the agency’s efforts on the topic, including its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program which is making $980 million available to Native American communities.

As previously reported this August, NTIA recently launched Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program making $268 million in grant funds available to HBCUs and other Minority-serving institutions.

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Digital Inclusion

Lack of Public Broadband Pricing Information a Cause of Digital Divide, Say Advocates

Panelists argued that lack of equitable digital access is deadly and driven by lack of competition.

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September 24, 2021- Affordability, language and lack of competition are among the factors that continue to perpetuate the digital divide and related inequities, according to panelists at a Thursday event on race and broadband.

One of the panelists faulted the lack of public broadband pricing information as a root cause.

In poorer communities there’s “fewer ISPs. There’s less competition. There’s less investment in fiber,” said Herman Galperin, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It is about income. It is about race, but what really matters is the combination of poverty and communities of color. That’s where we find the largest deficits of broadband infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that “there is an ongoing effort at the [Federal Communications Commission] to significantly improve the type of data and the granularity of the data that the ISPs will be required to report,” Galperin said that the lack of a push to make ISP pricing public will doom that effort to fail.

He also questioned why ISPs do not or are not required to report their maps of service coverage revealing areas of no or low service. “Affordability is perhaps the biggest factor in preventing low-income folks from connecting,” Galperin said.

“It’s plain bang for their buck,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, referring to broadband providers reluctance to serve rural and remote areas. “It costs more money to go to [tribal lands].”

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that digital divide clearer and more deadly. “There was no access to information for telehealth,” said Morris. “No access to information on how the virus spread.”

Galperin also raised the impact of digital gaps in access upon homeless and low-income populations. As people come in and out of homelessness, they have trouble connecting to the internet at crucial times, because – for example – a library might be closed.

Low-income populations also have “systemic” digital access issues struggling at times with paying their bills having to shut their internet off for months at a time.

Another issue facing the digital divide is linguistic. Rebecca Kauma, economic and digital inclusion program manager for the city of Long Beach, California, said that residents often speak a language other than English. But ISPs may not offer interpretation services for them to be able to communicate in their language.

Funding, though not a quick fix-all, often brings about positive change in the right hands. Long Beach received more than $1 million from the U.S. CARES Act, passed in the wake of the early pandemic last year. “One of the programs that we designed was to administer free hotspots and computing devices to those that qualify,” she said.

Some “band-aid solutions” to “systemic problems” exist but aren’t receiving the attention or initiative they deserve, said Galperin. “What advocacy organizations are doing but we need a lot more effort is helping people sign up for existing low-cost offers.” The problem, he says, is that “ISPs are not particularly eager to promote” low-cost offers.

The event “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color,” was hosted by the Michelson 20MM Foundation and its partners the California Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Southern California Grantmakers.

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Digital Inclusion

Outreach ‘Most Valuable Thing’ for Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: Rosenworcel

FCC Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel said EBB will benefit tremendously from local outreach efforts.

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Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chair Kim Keenan

WASHINGTON, September 13, 2021 – The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Monday that a drawback of the legislation that ushered in the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program is that it did not include specific funding for outreach.

“There was no funding to help a lot of these non-profit and local organizations around the country get the word out [about the program],” Jessica Rosenworcel said during an event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance about the broadband affordability divide. “And I know that it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”

The program, which launched in May and provides broadband subsidies of $50 and $75 to qualifying low-income households, has so-far seen an uptake of roughly 5.5 million households. The program was a product of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

“We gotta get those trusted local actors speaking about it because me preaching has its limitations and reaching out to people who are trusted in their communities to get the word out – that is the single most valuable thing we can do,” Rosenworcel said.

She said the FCC has 32,000 partners and has held more than 300 events with members of Congress, tribal leaders, national and local organizations, and educational institutions to that end.

“Anyone who’s interested, we’ll work with you,” she said.

EBB successes found in its mobile friendliness, language inclusion

Rosenworcel also preached the benefits of a mobile application-first approach with the program’s application that is making it accessible to large swaths of the population. “I think, frankly, every application for every program with the government should be mobile-first because we have populations, like the LatinX population, that over index on smartphone use for internet access.

“We gotta make is as easy as possible for people to do this,” she said.

She also noted that the program is has been translated into 13 languages, furthering its accessibility.

“We have work to do,” Rosenworcel added. “We’re not at 100 percent for anyone, and I don’t think we can stop until we get there.”

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