Coronavirus Could Become The Ultimate Voter Suppression Tool. Here’s Why I Believe It Doesn’t Have To Be.
It's bad enough that it's a global pandemic.
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If we're not careful, coronavirus may end up being the ultimate voter suppression tool.
Bad enough that it's a global pandemic. Even worse that it's exposing an array of dangerous gaps in daily life and all sorts of essential infrastructure — from healthcare systems to food and medical equipment supply chains — all while exacerbating current race and income disparities. But, now, the current panic is convincing many of us that the right move is to delay the election. That idea is already underway with five states postponing their primaries until later dates.
Ohio didn't show up on this week’s Super Tuesday III roster as the governor made a split-day decision to override a judicial order and postpone until June 2; other states such as Louisiana, Kentucky, Georgia and Maryland are also acting as if any sort of election postponement is the brave thing to do. Other states, like crucial battleground Pennsylvania, are also considering it.
We don't need to do that. In fact, we have no business doing that.
Suggesting that we shouldn't vote draws a mix of panicked and angry glares from those who believe critics like us are being careless, at best — completely mean, at worse, for putting the health of voters and polling precinct workers at further risk. Yet, even with the coronavirus, the move to delay primaries — and thereby create a slippery slope towards pulling the plug on the rest of the election — is premature and full of overreaction. Don't go down this road, fam. Doing so puts us on a slippery slope we'll end up regretting in the very near and foreseeable future.
The Democratic National Committee's outrage and threat to penalize states who do postpone is warranted. It shows that some Democrats, including Chairman Tom Perez, understand how high the stakes are. Not only does it begin to create dangerous precedent for a process that's always occurred without delay even in the midst of war (Abraham Lincoln didn't have a problem keeping the 1864 presidential election going even as the country was embroiled in a massive Civil War — even when the risk of losing his own presidency loomed large), but it will undercut efforts to remove the current "existential threat" in the White House and to replace the powers in the Senate which embolden him. This is the most consequential election in modern American history, and it will be a last shot opportunity to resolve the current Constitutional crisis we're faced with now.
Stopping the election on any level suddenly stops the needed electoral mobilization to pause the accelerated meltdown of American democracy. It also potentially dismantles our ability to repair a dysfunctional federal government that is partly responsible for triggering the current global crisis.
The impeachment acquittal was, indeed, the final removal of checks and balances on the Trump presidency. Given the administration's penchant for open-air retaliation, we need to stop operating under the assumption that a political opposition will be allowed to exist if Trump is reelected. It won't.
Hence, there should be no talk or encouragement of election delays — especially from the historically disenfranchised Black electorate. Nor should we be entrusting any responsible postponement of primaries or any election to Republican policymakers. One should eye any Republican-dominated moves to delay with caution. The majority of states that have postponed primaries — three out of five — are Republican; four out of five are reliably conservative or "red states" (with the exception of split-government Maryland, where Democrats run the state capitol). Even the two states with Democratic governors — Louisiana and Kentucky — are places where the state legislatures and much of the electorates are so deeply conservative that they aren't risking re-election hopes for later on. All five states, in addition, have their elections and voter registration administered by Republican Secretaries of State.
With the GOP track record, so far, on actively franchising voter suppression, do we suddenly trust them on their word to protect voters from a public health emergency?
Instead, now is the time for a national movement under the moniker of "distance voting." It's not completely necessary, anyway, for all voting to take place on one election day full of crowded polling places. No, we haven't yet designed a secure enough digital tool so we can vote as easy as American Idol. But, voting cycles should be and can be spread out over a period of months anyway, with the outcome announced on the more ceremonial "Election Day." That's how we should be doing it.
Rather than delay, states should be immediately transitioning to the option most of them have available: some form of alternative ballot processing that doesn't involve a polling location. Most states have absentee ballot, mail-in ballot or early voting options in place on some level, or a combination of all three. Indeed, all states provide absentee ballots to certain classes or segments of the voting population, and two-thirds will provide the absentee option without requiring an excuse. Vote-by-mail is universal in five states, and the option is available in others.
States should have been using federal election security funding to implement these sorts of alternative or distance voting measures more universally. If that had been the case, we wouldn't be talking about delays.
This is where civil rights, voting rights and other voter mobilization organizations should start stepping up. The Black political community, from grassroots organizations to Black elected officials, should be putting public pressure on their respective states to resist the temptation to postpone election dates. But, both grasstops and grassroots organizations should be consolidating their resources and pushing a unified national 50-state strategy that (1) demands states expand their distance voting and early voting infrastructure while (2) identifying the states where distance voting and early voting options are available, along with a central calendar of dates and finally, (3) activating aggressive efforts that ensure voters use those options.
In the meantime, on a separate track, there should be a national effort to also hire younger polling precinct workers. That would immediately address the health concerns of elderly poll workers; according to the Election Assistance Commission “less than one-fifth of poll workers were younger than 41 years old, whereas more than two-thirds were 61 years or older.” There's an opportunity for municipalities and states to hire younger poll workers (a move that could also help energize Gen Z and millennial turnout).
Elected officials and aligned interest groups should also be suing states who delay election dates or show signs of complicating distance and early voting options. Pressure should be put on Congress to pass comprehensive distance voting legislation.
Voting can still happen along with coronavirus social distancing. The key is making sure this national "distance voting" effort is ambitious; it's not simply PSAs. It's every level of the historically disenfranchised and vulnerable communities pulling together their advocacy infrastructure to make this happen.
Our ancestors, not too long ago, went through much worse, much deadlier hurdles to exercise their right to vote. Or did we forget about that? If they could find creative ways around poll taxes, police blockades, arrests and lynch mobs on the way to the polling place, we can find ways around coronavirus. It's that important.