As the Covid-19 outbreak continues to spread across the United States, 15 states and one US territory are delaying elections, with more expected to do so if the crisis drags on. This has led to US Senators Amy Klobuchar (a former presidential candidate) and Ron Wyden introducing legislation to expand vote-by-mail efforts to allow as many Americans as possible to participate in the November general election.
Any public official confident that their policies are popular should celebrate the opportunity to allow more participation from voters. However, this legislation prompted outrage from top Republicans. President Trump derided the $400m in proposed new funding that Democrats sought to provide mail-in ballots, telling Fox & Friends hosts “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if those efforts were successful.
Attempts to expand voting by mail have also met Republican stumbling blocks at the state level. In response to one proposal to mail ballots to all registered voters in Georgia, David Ralston — the Republican Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives — said the prospect of more voter participation would be “extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.”
Wisconsin’s presidential primary and state supreme court election is still being conducted in-person, despite calls from the Wisconsin Democratic Party to postpone it. Governor Tony Evers (a Democrat) asked the Republican-controlled legislature to mail primary ballots to Wisconsin voters, and even unsuccessfully called lawmakers back for a special session last weekend specifically to postpone the election. Despite these efforts, Republicans have steadfastly refused to do so, citing logistical concerns. Even after Evers issued an executive order halting in-person voting, Wisconsin Republicans complained to the state Supreme Court (which has a 5-2 conservative majority), and it blocked Evers' order.
Despite an ongoing lethal pandemic, Wisconsin voters won't even be able to submit absentee ballots after Tuesday — despite the fact that some voters who requested them have yet to receive them. This can be credited to the conservative majority on the federal Supreme Court, which ruled on Monday to overrule a lower court decision extending the window for which Wisconsin voters can submit absentee ballots.
Writing on behalf of her liberal colleagues, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that "either [voters] will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety. Or they will lose that right, through no fault of their own."
"The court's order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement," she added.
Republican opposition to making it easier for more people to vote is more than logistical — it’s ideological. Forty years ago, conservative activist Paul Weyrich — founder of the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — openly stated that Republicans have an electoral advantage when fewer ballots are cast.
“I don’t want everybody to vote,” Weyrich said at a gathering of conservative evangelicals in 1980. “Our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
This particular ideological viewpoint is likely the source of ALEC’s efforts to pass model voter ID legislation in statehouses across the country that seek to put more roadblocks between citizens and the ballot box and drive down turnout. In 2016, one such voter ID law in North Carolina was struck down by a panel of federal judges, who found that the legislation was designed to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” A similar voter ID law in Texas was struck down for the fifth time in 2017. Coincidentally, Republican-controlled states ramped up efforts to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters after 2013, when the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court stripped out a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the Shelby County v. Holder case.
However troubling it is that Republicans are discouraging efforts to increase voter turnout during the pandemic, it’s even more distressing that former Vice President Joe Biden — the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination — is also discouraging the expansion of voting by mail. Last week, Biden was quoted saying holding an in-person primary in Wisconsin “could be done” despite guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that gatherings of groups larger than 10 people should be cancelled.
“A convention having tens of thousands of people in one arena is very different than having people walk into a polling booth with accurate spacing, six to 10 feet apart, one at a time going in, and having machines scrubbed down,” Biden said, clarifying that he didn't want an all-mail election. “I think it’s possible to do both [mail-in ballots and in-person voting].”
Biden’s faith in a safe in-person primary doesn’t jibe with reality. Following the Florida primary in March, multiple poll workers tested positive for Covid-19. And in France, eight election officials died from coronavirus complications, with many others infected, after municipal elections were conducted in-person.
Given that Wisconsin is approximately 7,000 poll workers short of what’s needed to effectively conduct a statewide election, the state has closed multiple polling places. In Milwaukee — the largest city in Wisconsin — the number of polling places is down from 180 to just five. This has resulted in extremely long lines and packed voting precincts, putting even more people at risk of transmission. It’s hard to imagine why the Biden campaign has been so cavalier in disregarding the advice of medical professionals, other than the fact that he knows low turnout in a state that Bernie Sanders decisively won in 2016 by 13 points would benefit him.
Americans shouldn’t have to risk their health and safety to simply express their right as citizens to vote. State and federal governments have a responsibility to follow CDC guidelines, immediately suspend in-person voting, and hold elections by mail-in ballots until the pandemic is over. Anyone saying otherwise is being reckless with your life.
Carl Gibson is a freelance journalist and columnist. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs