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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.

Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children.

Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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Digital Inclusion

Historically Underrepresented Communities Urged to Take Advantage of BEAD Planning

BEAD requirements a unique opportunity for underrepresented communities to be involved in broadband builds.

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Photo of Mara Reardon, NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2023 – Underrepresented communities are being urged to take advantage of the opportunity brought by the billions in funding coming from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by actively planning for the money being allocated by June 30.

The $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program is a unique opportunity for historically underrepresented communities to be heard in critical digital equity conversations, said experts at a United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday.

“For once, they are being included in the implementation process,” said Mara Reardon, the NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement, adding this is a “unique opportunity.” It is essential that communities take advantage of this by approaching state broadband offices, drafting broadband expansion plans, and showing up in commenting processes, Reardon urged.

Furthermore, historically underrepresented communities can make themselves available as contractors by subscribing to state mailing lists, being aware of requests going out, and participating in the state bidding process, said Reardon.

The notice of funding outlines several requirements for inclusion of historically underrepresented groups in the planning process, Reardon reiterated. Specifically, it mandates that eligible entities include underrepresented stakeholders in the process of developing their required five-year plans. This type of requirement is unique to federal infrastructure grants, said Reardon.

Due to the nature of the grant requirements, states must take necessary affirmative steps to ensure diverse groups are used in contracting and planning, added Lynn Follansbee of telecom trade association USTelecom. This means that projects will be outsourced to various providers and suppliers and that the work will be broken into pieces to involve as many groups as possible, said Follansbee.

The NTIA is making an effort to ensure that all community members are heard in critical issues, even establishing the office of public engagement for that purpose. It also said it has awarded $304 million in planning grants for broadband infrastructure builds to all states and Washington D.C. by the end of 2022.

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Digital Inclusion

CES 2023: Congressional Oversight, Digital Equity Priorities for New Mexico Senator

Sen. Lujan once again voiced concern that the FCC’s national broadband map contains major inaccuracies.

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Photo of Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., in February 2018 by Keith Mellnick used with permission

LAS VEGAS, January 6, 2023 – Sen. Ben Ray Lujan on Friday endorsed “oversight at every level” of executive agencies’ broadband policies and decried service providers that perpetuate digital inequities.

Lujan appeared before an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to preview the tech-policy priorities of the 118th Congress.

Among Washington legislators, Senators had CES 2023 to themselves: Representatives from the House of Representatives were stuck in Washington participating on Friday in the 12th, 13th and 14th votes for House Speaker.

Congress allocated $65 billion to broadband projects in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the bulk of which, housed in the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, is yet to be disbursed. The IIJA funds are primarily for infrastructure, but billions are also available for digital equity and affordability projects.

Several federal legislators, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have called for close supervision of Washington’s multitude of broadband-related programs. At CES on Friday, Warner argued that previous tranches of broadband funding have been poorly administered, and Lujan once again voiced concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map, whose data will be used to allocate BEAD funds, contains major inaccuracies.

Affordable, high-speed broadband is now a necessity, stated Warner. Lujan argued that policy must crafted to ensure all communities have access to connectivity.

“The [Federal Communications Commission] is working on some of the digital equity definitions right now…. I don’t want to see definitions that create loopholes that people can hide behind to not connect communities,” the New Mexico senator said, emphasizing the importance of “the digital literacy to be able take advantage of what this new connection means, so that people can take advantage of what I saw today [at CES].”

At a Senate hearing in December, Lujan grilled executives from industry trade associations over allegations of digital discrimination.

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