By Other Words
By Robert P. Alvarez*
First, it was a public health crisis. Now, it’s decimating the economy. And for it’s next trick, the coronavirus is threatening to undermine the 2020 election.
Unless, that is, Congress steps in to ensure we can vote by mail.
If you’re curious what the worst case scenario is, look no further than Wisconsin, where a gerrymandered GOP legislature forced voters to the polls over the orders of the Democratic governor — and against the advice of public health officials.
Wisconsin Republicans not only declined to send every voter an absentee ballot. They also appealed — successfully — to the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court to prevent voters who received their ballot late (through no fault of their own) from having their votes counted.
It was a transparent ploy by Wisconsin Republicans to support a conservative incumbent on the state Supreme Court by suppressing the vote. It failed — his liberal-leaning challenger won — but they struck a huge blow to voting rights in the process.
Fallout from the coronavirus exposed structural weaknesses in everything from our health care and education systems to market supply chains and labor rights. It also made painfully obvious the fragility of our electoral process.
Unfortunately, states have received little help from Congress in shoring up their elections. Just $400 million of the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill was earmarked for helping states cover new elections-related expenses stemming from the pandemic.
When it comes to providing the financial support necessary to ensure our elections are safe, accessible, fair, and secure, the last coronavirus response bill was a dereliction of duty.
Will it be safe to gather in large numbers by November? And even if it is, will voters feel comfortable standing in line, for up to six hours in some cases (thanks to GOP poll closures, but that’s another story), next to strangers?
If not, it’s fair to assume some voters will elect not to vote due to safety concerns. And that should undermine public confidence in the outcome.
The obvious solution is expanding voting by mail.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump is fiercely opposed to this. “They had things, levels of voting, that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he said.
Let that sink in. The president — who himself voted by mail — openly views the right to vote as a threat to his presidency and party.
Americans shouldn’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote. In the midst of this pandemic, states with overly cumbersome processes for absentee voting are complicit in voter suppression. Period.
To fix this, we need to ensure no-excuse absentee voting in the next coronavirus bill — and that’s the bare minimum. Beyond that, we also need pre-paid postage for mail-in ballots and an extended early in-person voting period.
We need accessible, in-person polling places with public safety standards that are up to snuff. That means election workers must know they’re safe, and must have access to personal protective equipment.
We also need to develop and bolster online voter registration systems, and run public information campaigns giving voters localized, up-to-date voting guidelines.
To complete this nationwide, we’re looking at a $2 billion price tag. That’s just 0.1 percent of the $2 trillion package Congress already passed — and if it ensures our democracy doesn’t die in this pandemic, it’s worth every penny.
*Robert P. Alvarez is a media relations associate at the Institute for Policy Studies. He writes about criminal justice reform and voting rights. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.