By Dee Crescitelli, Juan Gerardo, Kyndall Brown, Silvia Llamas-Flores, & Carlos LópezLeiva 


The coronavirus pandemic stands to bring a major surge of mail-in and absentee voting in the upcoming general election. Now more than ever, a system that is designed to keep voters safe is critical and fundamental to our democracy. Unfortunately, recent events have raised questions about voting rights, particularly for people of color. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated voter suppression and highlighted the systemic racism and inequities that have historically affected people of color.  In this blog, we address some of the many factors that disproportionately disenfranchise different groups. Understanding voting as a fundamental democratic right, we present this information to promote critical conversations on the structures constraining this right, but at the same time, we also encourage our audience to VOTE! With this in mind, in this blog, we start by briefly contextualizing voting laws in the U.S. to provide context to the rest of the blog. We then highlight some of the differences in voting laws across different states and the ramifications these laws have on different groups. We then move on to discuss the role that COVID-19 has played in exacerbating voter suppression and how mail-in-voting has become a voting right issue. To end, we provide examples of several lessons that can be used in the classroom to discuss issues centered around voting and COVID-19. 

1. Disenfranchising Voting in US Context 

According to the Oxford dictionary, disenfranchisement is the state of being deprived of a right or privilege, especially the right to vote. Throughout the history of the U.S., there are many groups of people who have been disenfranchised. Originally, the only people who were allowed to vote were white male property owners. The 15th amendment to the constitution gave formerly enslaved African-American men the right to vote. The 20th amendment gave women the right to vote. Even after the passage of the 15th and 20th amendments, many states enacted policies that restricted the voting rights of African-Americans. A large focus of the Civil Rights movement was securing the right to vote. The 1965 Voting Rights Act provided nationwide protections for voting rights. The law prohibits every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities. Other general provisions specifically outlaw literacy tests and similar devices that were historically used to disenfranchise racial minorities. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has begun to reverse many of the gains of the Voting Rights Act. 

Links to Articles About Disenfranchisement

Supreme Court Invalidates Key Part of Voting Rights Act

New York Times coverage of the Supreme Court invalidating key portions of the Voting Rights Act

Study: New Voting Laws Continue Disenfranchisement, Put Elections Administrators in Difficult Positions

Article from 8/25/20 detailing the impact that Shelby v. Holder is having - mainly about laws that give outsized (and often unwanted power) to non-election officials in determining who gets to vote. For example, in states that have enacted very specific voter-ID laws, the Department of Motor Vehicle personnel get to determine who can get an ID, and therefore who gets to vote. Staffing patterns at DMVs and differing hours of operation due to COVID-19 precautions further exacerbate this issue-- creating barriers for historically disenfranchised groups.

Democrats Need to Step Up Their Efforts to Beat Voter Suppression

Run-down of the twelve most egregious voter suppression measures adopted since 2010

State differences (closing of polling stations, hours, etc.) - for whose benefit /exclusion?

State Poll Opening and Closing Times (2020)

Voting hours vary from state to state. In Tennessee, each county determines the opening time for polling places in that county for each election (set at least 15 days before the election), but all polls close at 8:00 pm eastern/7:00 pm central time, which leads to major differences in poll hours across the state.

In New York, there is a set 6:00 am to 9:00 pm time frame for all general elections; this fifteen hours of voting availability is the most generous amount of time in any state with in-person voting. Most states hover around 12 hours as an average, but with lots of room for variation that can allow for only eight hours of voting.

Availability of poll workers

In many voting districts, the number of polling stations and hours of operation are dependent on the number of trained poll workers available to work.  One way to increase the number of polling locations is to recruit and retain poll workers from year to year.

Website for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission with information about signing up to help in your community. 

2. Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering refers to the act of drawing a voting district that favors one political party over the other. In 2010, Republicans strategized to gain state legislator control and dictate the redrawing of state electoral districts (i.e., REMAP for Redistricting Majority Project). This strategy was quite effective. In 2012, Democratic statehouse candidates won 51% of the vote in Pennsylvania yet only obtained 28% of the seats in the state legislature. In 2016, the Republican party held a majority in nearly two-thirds of state legislative chambers. At the federal level in 2012, Democrats won 1.4 million more votes for the U.S. House of Representatives, yet Republicans retained control of the lower chamber 234 to 201. Therefore drawing of voting districts have both state and federal consequences. 

Although recent court cases have challenged redistricting maps (e.g., North Carolina for extreme partisan gerrymandering and Virginia for racial bias), a highly anticipated decision in 2019 by the Supreme Court deferred on the constitutionality of gerrymandering by stating that it is a "political question" beyond the reach of the federal court. So not only will the 2020 election determine the next president, but with the controversy related to the completion of the census, this year’s election will have state and congressional implications for the next decade. If 2018 midterm elections are any indication, Democrats may have a chance at overcoming Republican gerrymandering efforts. But the question remains whether gerrymandering by Democrats or Republicans ought to be tolerated every ten years? There are some efforts to mathematize how state’s legislatures determine electoral districts, while others offer mathematical recommendations to end this practice and draw districts that are representative of registered voters.

3. How COVID-19 is Exacerbating Issues on Voting

In addition to Gerrymandering and Voting Disenfranchisement, current decisions on measures to coordinate the voting process have increased barriers to casting a vote. In this section, we cover two aspects: physical locations that meet health requirements and mail-in voting. Learn about specific voting COVID-19 information for your state.

A.  Voting in Person at Physical Places that match health requirements (Polling Stations (location, hours, size))

Elections held since the beginning of the pandemic have put a spotlight on the disparities in both the number of polling places and the amount of equipment available for voting at individual precincts. Each state sets its own guidelines, and individual county boards of elections decide specific locations and staffing patterns.

The logistics of planning voting locations and specifics turn out to be a series of mathematical modeling problems (with optimization!)–repeated all over each county in each state of the country for every election. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission communicates federal requirements for and provides election management resources for local election officials, and gives these basic requirements about the physical spaces for voting:

  • The buildings selected for use as polling places must meet Federal and State accessibility requirements.
  •  Buildings must have an adequate-sized room or hallway sufficient to meet the needs for setting up equipment and voter check-in stations, including adequate space for voters to wait in line.
  • The property must have sufficient parking available for voters’ use on Election Day.            
  • Traffic ingress/egress must be evaluated based on the number of expected voters on Election Day.

COVID-19 safety precautions add an additional layer to the requirements for voting spaces. The physical arrangement of spaces can make some locations less ideal for social distancing.  Many states have approved the use of voting "supercenters," which are large spaces where multiple precincts can be set up for in-person voting. This alleviates some of the logistical issues of social distancing while adding others to sort out, including anticipating and monitoring heavy traffic into these larger centers. Images of citizens banging on doors at the Louisville, Kentucky Expo Conference Center in June's primary election led to discussions over what constituted being in line for the cut-off time of 6:00 pm when voting involves parking and walking relatively long distances to vote at a convention center. 

COVID-19 also impacts staffing levels at voting precincts. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, more than half the poll workers in 2016 were aged 61 or older, making them at higher risk of adverse health effects from contracting the virus. This resulted in smaller numbers of available poll workers for this year's primary elections and a push to recruit younger adults to get trained in how to work elections. Below are some links that further describe these concerns:

B.  Mail-in voting/absentee voting

As a result of COVID-19 and its impact on voting-in-person during the 2020 primary election season (e.g., Wisconsin held its election while 16 states delayed theirs), Absentee voting or mail-in voting is in the spotlight during this presidential election. And claims of possible fraud due to mail-in-voting by President Trump, Attorney General Bill Barr, and others have also raised the stakes for voting by mail. These claims are generally dismissed because there is very little evidence that mail-in-voting fraud is prevalent (ironically, recent examples of possible voter fraud are linked to Republicans in North Carolina and Kansas).

To clarify any confusion, what is the difference between absentee ballots and mail-in ballots? There is none. Additionally, there are other terms such as advance ballots, mailed ballots, by-mail ballots, mail ballots, or vote-by-mail ballots. All of these terms refer to the act of "a ballot sent to a voter [that] is voted outside of a polling place or election official's office. Traditionally these ballots are referred to as an 'absentee ballot… and the person… is an 'absentee voter.'" For the sake of consistency and using the traditional term for voting outside of a polling place, we shall use the terms absentee ballot, absentee voter, and absentee voting. What follows is a brief overview of the current practice of absentee voting in the United States.

All states offer some form of absentee ballot voting. Thirty-four states and Washington DC offer "no-excuse" absentee voting, which means that no reason is necessary to receive a ballot by mail. Of those states, five (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, Washington) conduct all elections by mail. Other states require some "acceptable excuse" such as Address Confidentiality Program (to protect the information of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking) to being out of the state or country on election day. Some states even allow "no-excuse" absentee voting for voters 65 years or older (note: Texas officials refused to lower the age for “no-excuse” absentee voting for the November election). Therefore, absentee voting is a legitimate way to vote. Yet there are concerns, not of fraud, but related to the processing of absentee votes.

For example, the Trump campaign has sued five different states that have attempted to mail ballots to all registered voters. To varying degrees, his campaign’s efforts have been unsuccessful. There are also local challenges that might cause confusion. In Wisconsin, with ballots already sent to some voters, the Green Party candidate was attempting to be included, which would have required a reprinting of ballots and confusion among voters whether they mailed the correct ballot for the November election. In Pennsylvania, the State Supreme Court ruled that ballots not returned in “secrecy envelopes” can be rejected. Yet Democrats won a recent court decision there to extend receipt of absentee ballots to November 6th so long as they are postmarked by November 3rd.

Even with the slew of court challenges, how absentee ballots are received and accepted or rejected is also a cause for concern. In Ohio, during the primary election, 1 in 100 votes was rejected. In states that President Trump won in 2016, the number of ballots rejected could impact the final result. For example, 23,000 votes were rejected during this past primary election in Wisconsin, and then-candidate Trump won by 23,000 votes in 2016; similarly, in Pennsylvania, 37,000 votes were rejected, and Trump won there by just over 44,000 votes four years ago. So, knowing how to submit an absentee ballot properly is essential. 

What about the day of the election? What is the process of tallying absentee ballots? Again, this varies by state. Some states can process ballots (e.g., verify the signature, deposit ballots in the ballot box) while other states can begin counting them before election day (e.g., Utah, North Carolina, Colorado). But no states will announce the absentee results until polls close on election day. 

Voting is a right, and absentee voting is a legitimate method to cast our vote. So just as we must remain vigilant against voter suppression (see above) and the gerrymandering of voting districts (see above), we must also remain vigilant that our absentee vote counts on election day.

4. Classroom Lessons on Voting

Finally, we present a set of ten mathematics lessons of different grade levels that can be implemented in mathematics classes to learn about and address some of the issues/ideas described in this blog.

A. Predicting the winner of the 2020 presidential election

Using the interactive map from this website, Students will predict the winner of the 2020 election. The interactive map allows students to indicate which candidate will win each state.

Students can use the following websites to investigate polls from each state to determine which candidate will win each state.

Start with a map with no electoral votes assigned to any state. Have students work together in groups to determine who will win the election.  Challenge students to use the polls to create a map where the democrats win and a map where the republicans win using the polling data.

B. It Costs Real Money to Run an Election (4th-5th Grade)

States and individual counties have to pay for personnel, securing voting locations, ballot printing, voter information, cybersecurity protections, and other materials needed to hold elections. COVID-19 has added additional costs to the standard ones that will need to be factored in for each locale's election budget.

Cost of Hand Sanitizer for one Polling Location on Election Day

The CDC has recommended having a large hand sanitizer pump at every human-crewed station at voting locations, as noted in the diagram of a polling place in Kansas. If one-gallon of Sanit-brand sanitizer is $39.95 a container, how much will it cost to set up this voting location up to open for election day?

Source link (12 X $39.95)

C. Single-Use Pens for Paper Ballots

One thousand pens in a bulk order for $133.95. In the last election, there were 42,056 votes cast in one precinct. How many bulk orders should the clerk order, and what will the total cost be (election purchases are tax-exempt)?

D.  Cleaning and Sanitizing Products

The Brennan Center ( has estimated that additional cleaning supplies needed for each precinct will cost about $0.02 per registered voter. Using the information from this table, find the projected cost for cleaning supplies needed for in-person voting in your state.

E. Walking Distances to Polling Stations

Discover how far the nearest polling station is from your school or students’ houses by consulting the Polling Station Locator. Have students search or google for the location of the nearest polling station to their house/school. Let them figure out two possible routes and determine how long it will take them to walk those routes. Have them mathematize the time it will take to three different people who vary in height and age (e.g., adult, teenager, child). Students need to determine the time and distance measures to describe their estimation. Conversations about circumstances across examples in the classroom might provide insightful conversations about access to Polling Stations.

F. Understanding Election Process through Math by Alessandra King

Visit this link and learn about several mathematics lessons designed for middle school students to learn about elections, especially how Mathematics can save Democracy. This site further elaborates on some of the issues and ideas raised here.

G. High School Lesson: ‘It Really Matters’

Today, roughly three-in-four registered voters (74%) say that it “really matters who wins” the presidential election, substantially higher than the share who said this at similar points in any of the prior four presidential contests: In 2008 and 2012, smaller majorities (63% each) said that the outcome really mattered, while 67% did so in 2004 (Source:

 Source link

a.  Is the graph of % of registered voters who say it really matters who wins the presidential election a function? Explain.

b. Approximate the rate at which the % of registered voters who say it really matters who wins the presidential election has been increasing. Show all work and label the answer appropriately.

c. State the meaning of the rate of change in the context of the problem. Be sure to write the assumption as part of your meaning statement. 

d. Model the percent of registered voters who say it really matters who wins the presidential election, P, as a linear function of the years since 2008, t. Do NOT use regression to answer this question (only to perhaps check your work). Show all work.

e. Find the general inverse function and describe what information the notation provides in this situation.

f. State the practical domain and rage of the model. Use appropriate notation.

g. Find the average rate of change of the % of registered voters who say things will pretty much be the same regardless of who is elected.

h. Compare the rates you found in part b and g. Make an argument that supports each of the different groups. Think about current socio-political events and what could be driving people to feel a specific way about the impact of who wins this upcoming election. What factors (e.g., race) do you think contribute to the way people feel about this election? 

H. High School Lesson: ‘Lowering the Curve’ – Mathematizing Covid-19 and the Impact on Voting Rights

Without protective measures such as quarantines and social distancing, an epidemic could surpass the healthcare system's capacity to care for patients. With the protective measures, the hump or curve is flattened, allowing the healthcare system to handle the epidemic.

Source Link

Let's assume that on day 0, 1 person is infected with Covid-19. That person then infects 2.5 other people after just one day. Then those 2.5 people infect 2.5 people each. How is the number of people who have been infected increasing?

Use this information to fill in the table:

Time (days)

No. of people who have been infected
















What type of function would model this type of growth?

If we assume that there are 7.8 billion people in the world, how would this affect the growth of the virus?

Sketch a graph that would model the spread of the virus.

What protective measures can be used to “flatten the curve”?

Extension to Calculus: The following clip can be used to extend logistic functions to derivatives by mathematizing what it means to "lower the curve." Students can explore the idea of instantaneous rate of change in the context of coronavirus cases.

Extension to Voting Issues: According to the CDC, Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. The term “racial and ethnic minority groups” includes people of color with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. But some experiences are common to many people within these groups, and social determinants of health have historically prevented them from having fair opportunities for economic, physical, and emotional health. (Source:

1. What are some factors that potentially contribute to this increased risk?  

2. The coronavirus pandemic stands to bring a major surge of mail-in and absentee voting in this upcoming general election. 

Unfortunately, a system that should be designed to keep voters safe during this pandemic is presenting challenges for many, disproportionately affecting minority voters, only exacerbating voter suppression for these groups. Think about current events, particularly those affecting voting by mail. In your groups, discuss how the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this issue and ways to mitigate the situation potentially.

I. High School Lesson: Vote-by-Mail – What does the data tell us?

This lesson can be used to discuss the level of support of vote-by-mail by different groups.  As an extension, you can have critical conversations about how this can lead to voter suppression and the disenfranchisement of different groups.  At the end of the lesson, there is some information about how voter suppression affects specific groups of people.

Source Link

Support for conducting all elections by mail has risen among several groups – but not Republican men. Two years ago, similar shares of men and women in each party expressed support for vote-by-mail elections. Today, there is now a gender gap in views within the GOP.

a. Define the input and output variables.

b. Find the rate at which the “Men – Dem/Lean Dem” group has been increasing. Show all work.

c. Use the rate of change from part (b) to predict the percent of Men – Dem-Lean Dem who will support vote-by-mail elections in 2022? 

d. What assumption are you making as you compute the answer in part (c)?

e. Find the rate of change for the “Men – Rep/Lean Rep” group from 2018 to 2020? 

f. What group of women show more support for conducting vote-by-mail elections?  Use rates of change to defend your choice.

g. State the meaning of the rate of change in the context of the problem.  Be sure to write the assumption as part of your meaning statement.

h. Based on the data and your calculations, what conclusions can you make about specific groups and the vote-by-mail support? (Source:

Who's Affected by Voter Suppression?

The short answer is all of us. Our democracy is debased when the vote is not accessible for all. But the fact is that some groups are disproportionately affected by voter suppression tactics, including people of color, young people, the elderly, and people with disabilities. There’s proof that certain groups have been deliberately targeted -- for example, the government documents uncovered in the census case proved that the citizenship question intended to harm immigrants. Other times, the proof is in the numbers.

  • Seventy percent of Georgia voters purged in 2018 were Black. 
  • Across the country, one in 13 Black Americans cannot vote due to disenfranchisement laws.
  • One-third of voters who have a disability report difficulty voting.
  • Only 40 percent of polling places fully accommodate people with disabilities. 
  • Across the country, counties with larger minority populations have fewer polling sites and poll workers per voter. 
  • Six in ten college students come from out of state in New Hampshire, the state trying to block residents with out of state drivers’ licenses.

5. Wrapping it up: VOTE!

Please, share with the TODOS Blog any other ideas you might have on teaching and learning about Voting with Mathematics. Also, let us know if you find any of these lesson ideas or information in the blog useful. We welcome and encourage you to providing suggestions for future Blog topics.

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