It’s going to take many months for American society to return to anything approaching normal. Right now, it’s still hard to imagine music lovers pressed together at crowded clubs, sold-out crowds cheering on their favorite team — or how tens of millions of Americans can responsibly join long lines this November to vote.
It seems entirely possible that extraordinary efforts to battle the coronavirus will continue all the way into the fall. Some of these public health measures may make it challenging for states to hold traditional in-person voting. Older Republican voters and urban progressives may be equally fearful and reluctant to vote; schools, libraries, and senior centers across red and blue states alike may become unwise precinct locations.
If we want to avoid a health crisis mutating into a full-blown constitutional crisis, it is time to safeguard the 2020 elections now. There’s a common-sense way to do this: Expanding vote-by-mail options across all 50 states, and ensuring that every American who wants to vote can, no excuse necessary.
A congressional mandate would ensure that access to absentee ballots is equal across all 50 states, and could fund nationwide efforts to print ballots, cover return postage, train poll workers, and purchase optical scanners. There’s a lot to get right, while ensuring that Native American tribal lands, rural areas, and public housing without reliable and secure mail service have in-person alternatives, and that new voters can register online. There’s no time to waste.
Unfortunately, Congress has already begun playing politics with the vote. Voting rights groups suggested $2 billion to $4 billion for these efforts — the equivalent of pennies for democracy in a bailout plan that could run toward $6 trillion, once action by Congress and the Federal Reserve is totaled. The stimulus package hammered out this week by Senate negotiators, however, includes only $400 million, a woefully inadequate step that will do little to guarantee every voter, in every state, can fill out a ballot without risking their health.
Ensuring that our democracy stays strong through an emergency should be nonpartisan. Vote by mail favors neither side. The right to vote is the right that sets all others in motion. But during the Senate debate on Tuesday, Republicans lined up in opposition, arguing that protecting access to the ballot box was somehow playing politics with a crisis.
Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, called efforts to establish early voting and equal vote-by-mail access “a naked attempt to use a public health emergency as a smoke screen for their radical agenda.” New early voting requirements, according to Senator John Barasso, a Wyoming Republican, “have no place in an emergency rescue package for the American people.”
On Twitter, quarantined Utah Senator Mike Lee insisted that Congress should play no role in mandating equal access to early voting. As for election assistance funding, “that has nothing to do with COVID-19,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.
These senators could not be more wrong or short-sighted. They need only look to the chaos earlier this month in Ohio, where health fears forced Republican Governor Mike DeWine to postpone primary elections just hours before polls were scheduled to open. They should listen to worried election administrators in Wisconsin, deluged by a half-million absentee ballot requests for the state’s April 4 primary, more than double the number received in 2016. And they should study the growing list of states that have also pushed primaries into the spring, which includes Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana.
It’s an urgent moment. We’re not prepared for it, in part, because voting rights themselves have become dangerously politicized — making it more difficult for leaders to quickly resolve important issues around this fall’s election in a nonpartisan manner.
In recent years, many states across the South and Midwest have introduced dramatic new barriers between citizens and their right to vote. The process accelerated in 2013 when the US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, gutted key enforcement mechanisms in the Voting Rights Act that had required many of these states to “pre-clear” any voting changes through the Department of Justice.
Freed from any federal oversight, these states rushed to make it more difficult for individuals to register and harder for organizations to conduct registration drives. They aggressively purged voting rolls, shuttered precincts, placed seemingly targeted barriers before college students, and demanded specific forms of ID before casting a ballot.
Meanwhile, largely along coastal America, the story is different and states are better prepared. State legislatures have enacted new protections of voting rights, expanded absentee and early voting, modernized election machinery to ensure confidence in the results, and launched automatic voter registration efforts.
Five states now vote entirely by mail, including Oregon, which pioneered the practice in 1998 and has seen turnout soar across party lines and all demographic groups. State officials scrupulously maintain voting rolls. Ballots can be returned via the mail or at one of many convenient drop-off sites. And while voter fraud is exceptionally rare in all elections, officials also execute a careful signature match just to be certain. Stealing individual ballots — each theft a separate felony count — would also be an ineffective way to steal an election; Oregon’s former secretary of state compares it to counterfeiting pennies rather than $100 bills. In many ways, vote by mail is safer: Paper ballots can’t be hacked, and they leave a trail.
Voting by mail is not risk free. It’s not inexpensive, and it has to be enacted with care. But this year, certainly, it’s a safer bet than the usual long lines and shared machines, with all of us, even older poll workers, protected by little more than Purell.
We do, however, need to get started. Conservative seniors in Florida and young progressives in Massachusetts all deserve to vote safely. Right now, the foundational notion of one person, one vote depends largely on where you live. One nation, indivisible, increasingly looks like two when it comes to voting rights. Can we meet the current challenge to ramp-up vote by mail and expand online registration when the two parties have such foundational differences on electoral reform?
The weak action from Congress this week suggests it might not be possible. And that means some states might step up and fully fund vote by mail themselves, while others do not. Some states may protect poll workers and voters from long lines, and others may subject them to health risks. And because one-third of states don’t offer “no-excuse absentee voting,” millions of voters might not be able to use a pandemic as a reason to vote absentee.
In this unparalleled crisis, politicians are going to have to end the voting wars, and reinvigorate our commitment to political equality for everyone, no matter where we live. A fair election this fall depends upon it.
David Daley is the author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy” and “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.”
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