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Digital Inclusion

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

Emily McPhie

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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.

Emily McPhie was Assistant Editor with Broadband Breakfast. She studies communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is a news 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

Virt Seeks To Serve As The Hub To Find And Join Virtual Events

Launched last week, virt.com hopes to take advantage of the rise in virtual events by crowdsourcing them in one place.

Tim White

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Photo of GHS co-founder Victor Zonana, left, from Global Health New Zealand

April 13, 2021 – Global Health Strategies, the global advocacy group focused on health and policy, last week launched Virt.com, a new open-source media platform that crowdsources virtual events on various issues.

Those “issue channels” include health, Covid-19, climate and environment, gender, food and nutrition and human rights. It relies on users in different regions posting about upcoming events in those categories.

The launch last week coincided with a new ad campaign called Unmutetheworld, focused on digital equity around the world with the belief that internet access is a human right. It includes partnering with groups like National Digital Inclusion Alliance and grassroots organizations in many different countries.

“The pandemic has transformed our lives. The way we connect, the way we celebrate, the way we mourn, the way we work, access healthcare and learn, has changed,” GHS CEO David Gold said in an interview. “Broadband allows us to connect virtually even during the pandemic, but so many people don’t have access to the internet, they cannot connect, and we have to change that,” he said.

Gold described Virt as a way to connect people globally to meaningful conversations about health, science, policy, technology, among other topics. “We have a window of opportunity right now with the pandemic to really change. Despite all the terrible effects of COVID-19, we have this moment in time to make the case for big investments,” he said.

Gold highlighted the work of GHS and the Unmutetheworld campaign to connect people across different nations. “Broadband access comes to the heart of economic development, we have to take that momentum in the U.S. and expand it around the world,” he said.

Broadband is becoming increasingly more important, with more people working, schooling, or using health services virtually than ever before due to the pandemic.

Broadband central to digital activities

“Broadband used to be a ‘nice to have,’ now it is a ‘must have,’” Angela Siefer, executive director at NDIA, said in an interview. “Twenty years ago, we were worried about having enough computers in a classroom and lucky that one of them connected to the internet, but that has changed now, and we need to keep up with the technology. It permeates our whole lives,” she said.

President Joe Biden recently announced a new $2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal called the American Jobs Plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband programs over eight years. Congress has also recently introduced legislation on broadband initiatives, including $100 billion as part of the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act, sponsored by the Democratic delegation on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“We are excited about the potential of these government initiatives, not just for funding deployment, but also to address affordability, digital literacy skills and devices,” Siefer said. “We’ve never had this much awareness about broadband issues. We’re seeing real ideas being put into action.”

Siefer also mentioned state-level efforts to expand broadband, including recent legislation in New York and Maryland. Maryland plans to spend $300 million of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan on broadband programs, including infrastructure, subsidies for fees and devices, and grants for municipal broadband. New York state recently announced the 2022 fiscal year budget including a $300 billion infrastructure package that contains broadband subsidies for low-income residents and an emergency fund to provide economically-disadvantaged students with free internet access.

“We’re seeing a shift to address adoption and affordability at both the state and federal level, where previously we only saw discussion of availability,” Siefer said. “It’s not just about unserved and underserved areas when it comes to digital equity, because the infrastructure might be there, but people are not participating in broadband for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Affordability and digital literacy lock people out. New programs aim to solve that problem and get people connected.”

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Digital Inclusion

Starry and Non-Profit PCs for People Seek Affordable Connectivity, Affordable Devices and Digital Literacy

Benjamin Kahn

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Photo of Starry Senior Vice President Virginia Adams from Public Knowledge

March 19, 2021—Broadband provider Starry Inc. and the non-profit group PCs for People launched a joint effort aimed at deploying affordable, robust, broadband coverage alongside discounted computer hardware to families living in public housing in Denver, Colorado.

Starry, a fixed wireless broadband provider based in Boston, Massachusetts, operates in 25 states, including Colorado. PCs for people attempts to improve digital inclusion by helping low-come communities secure low-cost internet access and computers.

The two organizations announced a partnership Tuesday to provide subscribers to Starry’s Connect service a $25 coupon that can be redeemed during the purchase of a computing device from PCs for People.

A study published by Pew Research in 2019 stated that 10 percent of Americans do not use the internet. More than half of that demographic stated that they did not use the internet because securing a connection was too difficult or the cost of doing so was prohibitive.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue because students and others who utilized internet through schools or libraries were likely unable to access it during parts of the pandemic.

“In order to truly achieve digital equity and inclusion across our communities, we must bring together three critical components: Affordable connectivity, affordable devices and digital literacy,” said Virginia Lan Abrams, senior vice president of government affairs and strategic advancement for Starry.

Abrams said that the joint venture will be a step towards shortening the digital divide. Without affordable connectivity, affordable devices and digital literacy, the internet has less value to low-income households, she said.

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Digital Inclusion

California Tech Fund Wants to Use Public Private Partnerships to Close Digital Divide

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Sunne Wright McPeak

March 8, 2021 – The California Emerging Technology Fund, a nonprofit foundation focused on digital equity in the state, called on internet service providers and business leaders to form public-private partnerships to close the digital divide under President Joe Biden.

“America can close the Digital Divide in the first term of the Biden Administration if the federal government can encourage Internet Service Providers (ISPs) through strategic investments to build broadband infrastructure in remote rural communities, including Tribal Land communities and improve woefully inadequate networks in high-poverty, densely populated urban neighborhoods,” said CETF CEO Sunne Wright McPeak.

“It is essential that business leaders and major employers support cost-effective solutions and sincere public-private partnerships that require ISPs to step up or step aside,” she said.

CETF CEO McPeak participated in the Broadband Breakfast Live Online ‘Champions of Broadband’ series. See “From the View of the California Emerging Technology Fund, Presidential Leadership Needed on Broadband,” Broadband Breakfast, October 16, 2020

CETF recommends the findings in the U.S. Council on Competitiveness Report, Competing in the Next Economy, which calls for authorizing a federal investment on the order of $100 billion for both broadband deployment and adoption, including digital skills development.

CETF said it commends the Business Roundtable for recognizing the immediate imperative to close the digital divide, which has been exposed by the pandemic as a digital cliff, with families falling off into deeper poverty and greater isolation.

Immediate investment by the federal government in partnership with states will not only address the digital disparities which are rooted in systemic racism, but will also provide a big stimulus to jumpstart economic recovery and will result in significant increases to gross domestic product and relative global economic productivity, the organization said.

However, the federal government should focus on investing its limited resources to support sustainable solutions, the CETF said, urging the Business Roundtable to go further in its call to action to seek “sincere public-private partnerships” instead of providing subsidies to ISPs.

In addition to the call to action, CETF is releasing the Digital Equity Bill of Rights, which describes principles and values developed over 15 years of collaborating with top national and state leaders in government, coupled with on-the-ground partnerships with regional, local and school leaders, civic organizations, business leaders, and several hundred community-based organizations.

CETF policy recommendations also are included in the California Broadband for All Action Plan, which emerged from an executive order by Governor Gavin Newsom to expand high-speed Internet deployment and adoption.

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