The pandemic is a black light on America, bringing our imperfections into sharper relief. One of them is how we elect presidents. As I write, we are planning to do it the same way we always have come November, even though Americans will likely still be sick and dying throughout the country and voters could be risking their lives to cast a ballot. Some officials are trying to find better options for conducting the election; others are trying to stop them.
President Trump complains incessantly about solutions to these problems, highlighting the inequities in the system in the process. During the coronavirus task force briefing on Tuesday, Trump called mail-in voting “corrupt” right after acknowledging that he mailed his absentee ballot to Florida last month. Earlier, on March 30th, he retreated to Fox News to complain about Democratic efforts to improve the relief bill he’d just signed into law. Democrats had sought sufficient funding to help states increase vote-by-mail capabilities, expand early voting and online registration, and increase the number of polling sites — in short, to ensure Americans could safely vote. Experts tell Rolling Stone such a revamping would cost anywhere from $2 billion to $4 billion; Republicans allowed only $400 million.
Watering down those solutions, to Trump, was a victory. “The things they had in there were crazy,” he told the Fox & Friends anchors. “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
It may seem like a startling confession from the president until you remember that Republicans use voter suppression not only because they appear to believe that only they and their supporters should have full access to democracy. They also don’t believe they can win a fair fight. As Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama, put it when we spoke, “At the end of the day, the real truth is that there are a lot of people, in particular in one party, that view increased access to voting as a death knell to their ability to get elected.”
Republicans have long disenfranchised voters least likely to elect them, and now the coronavirus is here to help. Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary offered evidence of that. Republican state lawmakers helped force in-person elections to be held during a pandemic, and the five U.S. Supreme Court conservatives ruled to allow the state (and effectively, the other 49) to throw out tens of thousands of absentee ballots delayed by the COVID-19 crisis. Voters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s blackest city, were forced to stand in lines for hours and through the dark of night. They once had 180 polling places to go and vote, but rather than increasing that number to increase physical distancing, Republicans cut the total to five. Meanwhile, in the whiter, wealthier suburbs, better options were available, including drive-up voting options that enabled people to stay in their cars while they handed over their ballots. We may not know for weeks which of these voters, these latest canaries in the coal mine, will get sick and possibly die because of this. However, the entire debacle was a preview of what November will look like nationwide if nothing more is done.
We have federal funding to build armies and weapons that can kill every living thing several times over, but our voting system is rusty and broken, ready to fail when it is truly tested. So after doing little to nothing to stop a pandemic — one that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s expert on infectious diseases, predicted in late March would likely resurface sometime around October or November — the president and his party are allowing its specter to hover over the election. As such, people without sufficient options will not vote, which will help Trump retain power. In lieu of his canceling the election, which a president cannot do, Republicans will opt for a kind of mutilation of democracy.
“We have a new lens through which to view” voter suppression, says Maxim Thorne, managing director of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, named for one of three civil-rights workers murdered in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. “That is the lens of disease. It will kill us as it is killing our democracy.” Thorne was actually optimistic, though, noting that even though the March relief bill shortchanged necessary voting reforms, it advanced progressive policy ideas such as vote-by-mail that advocates have sought for decades. “We never had language like that [in a bill],” he says.
But protecting the vote this November will require more than optimism. New York University’s Brennan Center for Law and Justice published a set of policy prescriptions in mid-March that pushed, among other things, for modified siting of polling locations to better serve marginalized communities and high-risk populations, such as senior care facilities. It is vital that the in-person options remain available, says Brennan Center director Myrna Pérez. “It is going to be really hard for states to ramp up and get everybody voting 100 percent by mail, even if people were 100 percent behind that,” she says. “It is really putting all of our eggs in one basket.”
Voting by mail doesn’t open the doors to fraud, as Republicans claim, but it is not a panacea. According to Hannah Fried, the national campaign director for the advocacy organization All Voting Is Local, states that are home to indigenous tribes that don’t have regular postal service are not well served by vote-by-mail solutions. The recently signed Ballot Interference Prevention Act in Montana, a state whose June 2nd primary will be held entirely by mail, threatens that population specifically. (The ACLU is suing the state over the law.)
Civil-rights attorney Kristen Clarke says certain electorates are in disproportionate jeopardy because of the pandemic. “With churches shut down, campuses closed, and grassroots activists unable to knock on doors,” she notes, “some of the ways that we have traditionally brought African Americans and other people of color on the registration rolls have come to a grinding halt.”
Solutions such as same-day and online registration (and even voting) could possibly address those issues, but more comprehensive remedies are needed, and quickly. These are remedies that Republicans likely will oppose, or sully by requiring postage stamps for mailed ballots, a minor but effective poll tax. That means the voters themselves, especially those living in Republican-controlled states, have to pressure their elected officials to follow the example of Pennsylvania, which extended registration times and mail-in deadlines, and allowed registered voters to submit a ballot by mail up to 50 days before an election.
“I know we’re focused right now on the economy, there could be an impending recession happening,” says Equity Alliance co-founder Charlane Oliver. “We need to also be making sure we’re planning for our democracy to be intact after this is all over.”