Let the people vote!

By: - April 14, 2020 5:30 am
Voters wearing masks wait in line to vote in Milwaukee’s April 7 primary. Only five polling sites out of 180 were staffed because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Isiah Holmes/ Wisconsin Examiner)

Health pandemic will put democracy itself at risk unless we act

American elected leaders will have to make a lot of complex decisions in the coming weeks and months in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Know-it-all commentators and internet trolls will try to push “simple” solutions or try to convince us that the situation is overblown and that we should simply suck it up and get back to work. But the truth is that societal recovery will likely be a frustrating and painstaking process with plenty of difficult calls and gray areas.

Our public health experts and scientists – the people who study and think about this stuff for a living – tell us that the virus is likely to ebb and flow for several months – a fact that is going to require widespread patience, determination and creativity. As former Vice President Biden noted in a Monday New York Times op-ed that had obviously been informed by consultations with knowledgeable professionals, “Things will not go back to ‘normal’ right away. As public health experts have said, we should expect activity to return gradually, with sites like offices and stores reopening before arenas and theaters.”

One thing, however, that is already clear in mid-April is that it’s time to get moving to protect the right of people to vote in the November election. As was demonstrated with excruciating clarity last week in Wisconsin’s disastrous primary election, we must have systems in place so that people can vote without putting their lives and those of their neighbors at risk.

In case you missed it, the situation was so dysfunctional that voters in Milwaukee (where there are normally 180 precincts) were limited to just five voting locations. Not surprisingly, long lines and a massively depressed turnout resulted.

To prevent such a disaster on a national scale in November, it’s clear we must embrace and invest resources in systems that will allow people to vote safely and remotely. Fortunately, this will not require reinventing the wheel.

As veteran journalist Hedrick Smith reported over the weekend for instance, voting by mail is already a widely recognized and implemented system in many states, including several that have moved aggressively in that direction in recent weeks for their primaries.

What’s more, turnout in the states (both red and blue) that had already been handling their elections by mail – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – has been high.

Seems like making the voting by mail option widely available would be a no-brainer, right?

Unfortunately, common sense policy choices that make it easier for people to vote are not an option that sits well with some on the right. Despite the widespread support of voting by mail by several Republican-dominated states, President Trump issued a nakedly partisan attack on the practice last week; here in North Carolina, Senate Republican leader Phil Berger made the outrageous insinuation that Gov. Roy Cooper might attempt to use the process to implement a criminal conspiracy to rig the election.

Berger’s disgraceful statement is especially rich given that less than a year ago an operative for his political party committed what’s probably the nation’s most notorious modern-day effort to perpetrate fraud via mail-in ballots.

Happily, as Rick Hasen – a law professor and widely-recognized voting rights expert – explained last week in the Washington Post, there are obvious and effective ways to deal with the threat of the kind of “ballot harvesting” that went on in Bladen County last year.

Most Americans also seem to grasp the wisdom of greatly expanding the voting by mail option. A national poll conducted in late March found support for it at 65% – though, not surprisingly given the relentless stream of propaganda dished out by Trump and his enablers, support from Republicans was lower.

None of this is to imply that voting by mail is a perfect solution. As States Newsroom Washington correspondent Arianna Skibell reported last week “remote voting doesn’t work for many with disabilities, those who require assistance reading, those without a permanent address, Native populations without reliable mail delivery, many with limited English, and still others who have a historic distrust of the system.”

Hasen also notes that absentee voters should be told if their ballots are being rejected and given a chance to cure any errors.

Fortunately, North Carolina election officials are smart enough to have foreseen a lot of these issues and to have submitted a formal list of requests to the General Assembly last month that constitutes a good starting point. A more aggressive move toward voting by mail seems likely necessary as well, depending upon the path the health pandemic takes. And, of course, significant new appropriations will be necessary.

The bottom line: It won’t be simple, but Americans of all parties and philosophies can and must come together to conduct a fair, high-turnout election this fall. Anything less at this moment of unprecedented crisis and great political division would deal a terrible blow to democratic government.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.