My husband has a face mask a friend made for him with the word VOTE sewn onto it in colorful letters. For now, no one has mocked him for wearing it or tried to pick a fight. But like mask-wearing itself, supporting this election has become politicized, signaling allegiance to one side of the nation’s deep divide. Once the undisputed province of nonpartisanship, voting has become a hotly contested space.
Thanks to the ceaseless attacks on the electoral process by President Trump — which accelerated when the coronavirus pandemic forced an expansion of absentee voting — familiar traditions have taken on a partisan flavor. To urge all Americans to exercise the franchise, to champion a high turnout, to wear the little “I Voted” lapel sticker with pride is to be identified, mostly, with Democrats. To complain that the process is “rigged,” to gleefully disrupt voting with disinformation or horn-blaring caravans, is mostly to support Trump.
Certainly the voting method people plan to use has become a form of partisan identification. In an August Monmouth University poll, 75 percent of Republicans said they were likely to eschew the mail and vote in person, no doubt taking their cues from Trump (although he himself often votes by mail). The opposite was true for Democrats, who take pandemic risks seriously and fought for expanded access to absentee ballots this year. Nearly three-quarters of them expected to vote by mail.
As he does so often, Trump blurted out the true reason he opposes mail-in ballots on “Fox and Friends” back in March, and it didn’t have anything to do with preventing fraud. Easing vote-by-mail, he said, would lead to “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” For Trump and his partisan followers, the greatest threat to democracy is too much democracy.
Indeed, states that lean Democratic have made mail-in voting simpler this year, while states controlled by Republicans have erected barriers. With the reliability of the US Postal Service in doubt, drop boxes have become an important option between mailed ballots and in-person voting. Here the red-blue divide is stark: In Boston alone, there are 17 drop boxes for voters to deposit their ballots, while Texas provides only one drop box per county. (In Houston’s Harris County, that’s 4.7 million people.) Last week, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, issued “guidance” requiring all the state’s drop boxes to be staffed in person at all times — a legally dubious move that comes as Florida voters have already begun using them.
Trump is leveraging his attacks on the election to reverse-engineer the perceived results to his benefit. If more of his supporters heed his warnings about the mail and vote in person, their ballots will be quickly counted, increasing the chances of what election analysts call the “red mirage” on election night. Mail-in and drop-box votes will take longer to tally, leading to a “blue shift” in the days following that Trump may label illegitimate. What is stunning, and heartening, is that turnout already is surging. Most states expect record-busting turnout this year, despite all the obstructions. About 1.2 million people have already voted in Massachusetts.
So many areas of public life that were once uncontroversial — trust in the expertise of scientists; the independence of the Justice Department; the dull but essential civic duty of the US Census; the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency to actually protect the environment — have been upended by this wrecking-ball presidency. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Trump would seek to divide the country over the first principle of democracy. But we can still be appalled.
Even some Republicans are distancing themselves from Trump’s attack on voting. Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, hearing the footsteps of angry Democrats, broke with Trump this summer over his outlandish suggestion that the election might have to be postponed due to the coronavirus. “Americans are going to vote on November 3rd, come hell or high water,” he said.
So I’d like to close with an exhortation to everyone to vote, and if that identifies me as a Democrat or a liberal, so be it. At the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., last weekend, activist Sonja Spoo scoffed at Trump’s threat to refuse to leave office if he loses next month. “That is not his power, that is our power,” she said. “We are the hell and high water.”
Just so. And the tide is rising.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.