Cleadel Waye, a New Jersey college professor and veteran educator, fought hard for civil rights in the '60s -- laying down in front of bulldozers in her teenage years to defy developers who refused to hire people of color.
Now, at age 71, she looks back at the battles she waged -- protesting at segregated lunch counters and rallying community voters -- and it all seems to be on the line amid fears that votes will be suppressed in the 2020 general election, either through restrictions such as ID laws or issues with voting by mail as the coronavirus pandemic rages.
"It really feels like a lot of it is coming back and there is a lot of evilness behind it. We have to realize that everybody does not want you to vote," Waye told ABC News. "So they're going to put up barriers, but that lets me know that we need to vote now even more than before.
"I don't care what the risks are right now. Stand 6 feet apart, put on your mask on, put on your gloves and you go vote.”
Waye is one of the senior citizens planning to either vote in person or via a secure drop box in November despite the pandemic and the risks to older people, citing concerns stemming about the country's mail-in and absentee voting system. For the most part, election officials are expecting a surge in mail ballots as more people avoid voting in person due to coronavirus risks, although many, including Waye and her church community, have vowed to hand-deliver their ballots to ensure they're counted.
With millions of Americans slated to cast their ballots by mail in an effort to avoid the virus or because they live in a state that already has all mail-in voting, fears have emerged that ballots will not delivered or counted because of a Postal Service in crisis. And President Trump and his allies have also stoked concerns, without substantiation, that there will be widespread voter fraud as a result of mail-in balloting.
Jane Cross, a professor of law and director of the Caribbean law programs at Nova Southeastern University, said she can understand why people might be leery of the U.S. postal system in light of the president's recent behavior.
"First, the president said he wanted to postpone the vote, which he can't do constitutionally, and when people tell him what he can and can't do constitutionally, he tries to find wiggle room," Cross said. "So now he knows he can't change the election, but he appears to be trying to sabotage it."
"And one of the reasons why he's discouraging people from voting by mail is that you can't tamper with those tallies the same way you can tamper with the electronic ones where there's no paper trail," she added.
The Trump administration denied allegations of voter disenfranchisement in the wake of its ongoing criticism of the U.S. Postal Service.
“The facts certainly support the President’s claim that the radical proliferation of universal mail-out voting has the potential to jeopardize the integrity of the upcoming election,” a White House spokeswoman said in a statement. “There is ample evidence that ballots cast by mail are more prone to contestation, less likely to be counted, and have a higher probability of being compromised than those cast in a voting booth.”
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 34 states plus the District of Columbia now allow voters to request absentee ballots. Another 11 states have made it easier to request absentee ballots for primary elections taking place this year, in large part due to concern over the coronavirus.
In general, voters in states where elections are conducted solely by mail or where absentee ballots are widely available are more likely than those in other states to say it will be easy to vote according to the Pew Research Center.
About 61% of registered voters in the five states where elections are conducted entirely by mail expect voting to be easy this fall. That compares to about 53% of registered voters in the four states and Washington, D.C., that do not conduct their elections entirely by mail but will be mailing ballots to all registered voters, and in states where mail ballots are available to any voters by request this year.
Overall, Biden supporters are much less likely to vote in person (23% compared to 60%) and prefer to vote by mail (58% compared to 17%), but Black Biden supporters are more likely than other groups to vote in person on Election Day (33% compared to 20% white and 21% Hispanic), according to Pew. Trump supporters are more likely than Biden supporters to vote in person.
Willing to take the risks
Like most Americans, Waye said she's definitely worried about the contracting virus, but she said she's willing to stand in line for hours come November to make sure her vote is counted.
“If you really feel that your health can't take it and I understand, especially for us seniors, then use the mail-in ballot, but make sure you have someone you trust drop it off for you in person," Waye said. "Also, have someone look it over for you to make sure that every 't' is crossed and every 'i' is dotted."
Many states are making it easier for residents to vote absentee by mail this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 6.1 million people in the U.S. and killed more than 185,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. Seniors, historically viewed as dependable and loyal voters, are at much higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.
Many states have broadened absentee voting rules to make the service available to all voters, representing a first for any presidential election in states like Michigan, experts said. That is in addition to the states already offering no-excuse absentee voting and the handful that have fully mail-in systems.
But while the share of Americans casting votes by mail has risen in recent presidential election cycles, it remains relatively low overall, and there’s wide variation across the country when it comes to the percentage of voters who have used this method, according to Pew.
For example, states like Oregon and Washington conduct their elections almost entirely by mail, but other states have seen generally few mail ballots, according to Pew data, which highlighted states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, where just 2% of voters mailed in their ballots in the 2016 presidential election.
Overall, the share of voters who cast ballots via mail-in methods increased nearly threefold between 1996 and 2016 – from 7.8% to nearly 21%, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the Census Bureau’s voter supplement data.
With health professionals urging limited in-person contact, absentee voting is expected to be substantial this fall, but many are wary, citing the possibility of voter suppression and Trump's ongoing criticism of the mail-in ballot system, according to some civil rights advocates.
Mail-in voting system under fierce scrutiny
Frances Laster, 71-year-old a civil rights advocate and small business owner in South Florida, said she's pushing her community to either vote in person or hand-deliver their absentee ballots if they can. She said she vividly recalls family members in her hometown of Oxford, North Carolina, who endured literacy tests and harsh poll taxes as early Black voters.
"I want to make sure that my vote is counted," she said. "I vote because I want my voice heard and politics right now is so divided and sometimes the people in control don't work for your best interests.
"So, we the people have to take an interest in what's going on -- especially at the lower levels of government,” she added.
Laster, owner of the Spiral Arcane natural hair care salon in Margate, Florida, said she's a member of a vocal community of activists who spread awareness about voting rights and disenfranchisement.
"I can remember when we were weren’t allowed to vote," Laster said. "I was around when they had to debate over the Voting Act and even when we had to pay a poll tax and endure literacy tests."
"So now that we have those rights, I want to use them to the fullest because some of these politicians are trying to take them away and they wouldn't try to take them away if they weren't so important. That's the message that I get and pass to my clients," she added.
She noted that many Republicans, including the president, have pushed conflicting and confusing messages when it comes to mail-in, voting, absentee voting and its various forms.
In July, Trump tweeted that mail-In ballot fraud had been "found in many elections."
"People are just now seeing how bad, dishonest and slow it is. Election results could be delayed for months. No more big election night answers? 1% not even counted in 2016. Ridiculous! Just a formula for RIGGING an Election," the president tweeted. "Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege. Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% fraudulent ballots?"
There is no evidence to support Trump's claim that 20% of votes in a universal mail-in election would result in fraud, but his administration has long stoked fears over potential voter fraud, civil rights advocates noted. Trump has specifically sounded the alarm on potential ballot harvesting, a practice in which individuals or groups collect large amounts of mail-in ballots from vulnerable populations like the elderly and submit them en masse.
"Because of these widespread inaccuracies in a state’s voter registration records, a state that sends ballots to all registered voters will necessarily send ballots to persons ineligible to vote or others with fake registrations, invalid registrations, outdated registrations, and to the deceased," the Trump campaign said in a lawsuit against New Jersey, one of several suits it's filed against states planning on universal mail-in voting. "These risks are compounded by the practice of ballot harvesting – that is, coordinated efforts to have third parties collect absentee ballots from voters and drop them off at polling places or elections centers."
Laster said it feels like the absentee voting system is under attack from the very top, which confuses older voters when it comes to how they should cast their votes.
"We have to take extra steps to make sure that every vote is counted. It's more important than ever now with all the voter suppression that happening," Laster said. "We have to fortify ourselves and be determined to get it right. Especially this year because it's a pandemic and it feels like they're trying to stop us from voting by mail."
Laster recently began connecting her clients at the salon with resources to help fight voter intimidation and disenfranchisement.
"We have heard horror stories from the polls about voter suppression and intimidation," she said. "They have all kinds of tricks to keep people from voting, so I have younger clients who volunteer to take people to the polls and assist them."
She said she's come in contact with many people in her age group who are "determined to vote in person," even if it means standing in longer lines than usual, but she's planning to hand in her absentee ballot and track it.
"Senior citizens are known to vote and they are dependable voters. Our immediate ancestors died so that we could vote," she said. "They were lynched and attacked by dogs, so there are many people who have said they're planning to vote in person because they don't know what to expect from this president, who is doing things that are unprecedented."
'I want my vote to count'
For Waye, voting in person -- standing in line, going into the both and pulling the lever and -- is symbolic. She said she has many family elderly members and friends around the country who feel the same way.
"When I vote, I think about people that went up to the polls and were literally being spat upon, and having their lives taken from them just to exercise their right to vote," Waye said. "They endured all of that, but I can't put on a mask, ride in my car and put in my ballot?"
Waye said her spiritual leaders, including her pastor, R. Lenton Buffalo Jr., of Union Baptist Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, helped her understand how important her voice was within the community.
Buffalo has also been instrumental in organizing older voters through a local coalition of New Jersey churches that offer their vans to help transport seniors.
"Whenever there's voting to be done, we all make our church vans available to get people back and forth to the polling places," he said. "We also stress within our churches that if somebody needs a ride let us know. Some of us have even had our vans, moving up and down the streets, announcing that you can get a ride to go vote."
Buffalo, 67, said local churches are planning to take a similar approach this year, but he know he'll have to work hard to convince the seniors that they are safe.
Buffalo acknowledged that the pandemic could present a number of challenges this year when it comes to voter turnout. But based on the work he's been doing on the ground, he said he wouldn't be surprised if older Americans continued turned out strong.
"Too many people struggled to give me a chance to go in their footsteps. Every time I push the lever, my great grandmother says 'thank you,'" he said. "They all marched for that, they died for that and it's shameful for Black people who don't know their history to sit at home on Election Day and watch the returns come in and have had no part in it. It's sinful to let somebody else determine your future."
He said he understands the fear surrounding in-person voting right now, but he's come in contact with a lot of seniors who have indicated that they plan to vote in person.
"I understand, but what they do is they go put their masks on, they go get in that line and they take their walking sticks and they hold that thing in front of them and they say 'I'm sorry babe, but you got to step back, 6 feet,'" he said. "They'll stand in that line because there is nothing that we can do more important on that day in November than to stand and vote."