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More Democracy or Less? Elections in a Pandemic

The GOP’s decade-long war on voting rights is making it harder to hold fair elections as COVID-19 spreads

A poll worker at the First Baptist Church voting site in Hollywood, Florida, wears a protective mask and gloves on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Voting in Florida's presidential primary is proceeding despite the novel coronavirus,TNS via ZUMA

The coronavirus emergency threatens to become a constitutional crisis. Several states have rescheduled primaries and other elections, amid warnings that we must act quickly to enact a national vote by mail system in case the pandemic continues toward November’s presidential election.

It’s an urgent moment. But the problems within our system have also been exacerbated by a patchwork of state-by-state election laws that create wildly disparate access to the ballot box and to voter registration. Just as dangerously, many leaders and state governments have politicized voting rights in such a way that may make it more difficult for leaders to quickly resolve important issues around this fall’s election in a nonpartisan manner.

We will need to act resolutely to ensure a fair and free vote, after a decade of toxic partisan gerrymandering, “surgically targeted” voter-ID bills, and disingenuous commissions investigating nonexistent “voter fraud.” But this conversation will be held against the backdrop of a political map that is not only filled with red and blue, but covered with “democracy deserts” — entire swaths of the nation where voting rights fail to grow.

In blue Vermont, a new emergency law allows the governor and secretary of state to send every registered voter an absentee ballot this fall. In red Arizona, that same measure failed in March. Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republicans have fought efforts to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter ahead of next week’s election there, likely looking to drive down turnout in a crucial state supreme-court election. Georgia’s Republican house speaker screamed that quiet part aloud, as well, criticizing a decision by the secretary of state simply to send voters absentee-ballot applications: “This will certainly drive up turnout,” said Rep. David Ralston, and “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.”Unfortunately, Congress has already begun playing politics with the vote. Voting-rights groups asked for $4 billion toward these efforts — the equivalent of pennies for democracy in a bailout plan that could run toward $6 trillion, once action by Congress and the Federal Reserve is totaled. The stimulus package hammered out last week by Senate negotiators, however, includes only $400 million, a woefully inadequate first step that will do little to guarantee every voter, in every state, can vote this fall without risking their health.

In an interview on Fox and Friends earlier this week, President Trump derided the vote-by-mail efforts as “crazy,” saying they would lead to “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Indeed, the foundational notion of one person, one vote depends largely on where you live. One nation, indivisible, increasingly looks like two when it comes to voting rights: One inclusive, the other exclusive; one that works to make voting easier, and the other redoubling efforts to discourage it. Can we meet the current challenge to ramp up vote-by-mail and expand online registration when the two parties have such foundational differences on electoral reform? Are both parties equally committed to a safe and fair election this fall? Looking at their actions, it’s hard to say that the answer is yes.

When rural or urban neighborhoods lack access to a grocery store with fresh vegetables, they’re called “supermarket deserts.” Voting rights resemble something similar: More than 59 million of us live in a state so gerrymandered that one or both chambers of the state legislature is controlled by the party that won fewer votes statewide in 2018. Access to vote has been limited or curtailed. Entrenched legislators then feel so untouchable that they’re willing to overrule ballot initiatives and undermine judicial rulings.

Many states across the South and Midwest have introduced dramatic new barriers between citizens and their right to vote. The process accelerated in 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in Shelby County vs. Holder, gutted key enforcement mechanisms in the Voting Rights Act that had required many of these states to “pre-clear” any voting changes through the Department of Justice.

Freed from any federal oversight, these states rushed to make it more difficult for individuals to register, harder for organizations to conduct registration drives, aggressively purged voting rolls, shuttered precincts, placed seemingly targeted barriers before college students, and demanded specific forms of ID before casting a ballot.

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Meanwhile, largely along coastal America, the story is different. State legislatures have enacted new protections of voting rights, expanded absentee and early voting, modernized election machinery to ensure confidence in the results, and launched new automatic voter-registration efforts that have greatly expanded turnout.

If forward-looking states have become innovative laboratories of democracy, others more closely resemble meth labs. In 2019, Tennessee passed legislation that threatens nonprofits with criminal penalties or crippling fines if a voter-registration drive submits paperwork that’s incomplete or includes too many mistakes. A judge put the law on hold while it’s challenged in state and federal court.

Legislators in New HampshireArizonaTexas, and Florida have worked to make it more difficult for college students to vote on campus, or in the community where they attend school and live at least nine months out of the year. Red states including OhioWisconsinGeorgia, and Indiana have embarked on aggressive voter purges and ensnared a disproportionate number of minority voters.

Consider Georgia, where 313,000 voters are at risk of being eliminated from the voting rolls as elections officials continue an aggressive purging of the state’s master registration list. That follows a 2017 purge that canceled the registration of more than 540,000 voters, the largest mass voter expulsion in American history.

Those voter purges, meanwhile, are part of a national trend. More than 17 million voters were culled from the rolls between 2016 and 2018, according to the Brennan Center for Justice (an additional 16 million were wiped in the previous two years),and while every voter purge is not voter suppression, officials often get it wrong in ways that make it look that way. Studies show that states with a history of voter discrimination (including Georgia, Texas, Arizona, and Virginia) have purged at the highest rates.

Texas, meanwhile, would make it a felony for anyone to cast an ineligible ballot, even by accident. Arizona looked to dial back early voting and expand voter-ID requirements. And legislatures in MissouriUtahMichigan, and Idaho worked to unwind popular initiatives won by citizens demanding reforms politicians had refused to make. In Florida, where 64 percent of voters approved a 2018 state constitutional amendment ending felony disenfranchisement, lawmakers added an additional burden instead — complete repayment of any fines and fees connected to the sentence or prison term — that many critics compared to a poll tax.

If parts of red America resemble democracy deserts, much of blue America is blooming.

In Washington state, soon after Democrats captured the state Senate in 2017 and attained trifecta control, lawmakers adopted automatic voter registration, which allows citizens to sign up to vote almost any time they interact with a state agency. Then they added Election Day registration, which allows citizens to sign up and cast a ballot the very same day.

Neighboring Oregon pioneered the use of automatic voter registration in 2016; a study showed that it not only added 270,000 people to the master rolls, but also increased the diversity of the electorate and drove turnout higher by between two and three percentage points. AVR’s success on the West Coast led to its passage in a total of 16 states including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Vermont, and Rhode Island. Voters in Nevada and Michigan, meanwhile, adopted AVR through popular 2018 ballot initiatives.

Pennsylvania lawmakers approved a bipartisan package of electoral reforms this year that will make registration easier and voting more convenient. It creates a new vote-by-mail option that’s not only open to everyone but also creates the longest voting window in the nation, and extends the pre-election registration deadlines. New York approved a similar package.

In order to keep a public-health crisis from turning into a democracy crisis, politicians are going to have to end the voting wars, find common ground, and expand, together, things like online voter registration and no-excuse absentee balloting. They will need to empower local elections officials to begin counting absentee and mail-in votes prior to Election Day. Eight months scarcely seems like enough time to make all of this work under good conditions, let alone a pandemic.

Ensuring that our democracy stays strong through an emergency should be nonpartisan. Vote by mail favors neither side. The right to vote is the right that sets all others in motion. But during the Senate debate on Tuesday, Republicans lined up in opposition, arguing that protecting access to the ballot box was somehow playing politics with a crisis.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) called efforts to establish early voting and equal vote-by-mail access “a naked attempt to use a public-health emergency as a smoke screen for their radical agenda.” New early voting requirements, according to Sen. John Barasso (R-WY), “have no place in an emergency rescue package for the American people.” Over Twitter, quarantined Utah Sen. Mike Lee insisted that Congress should play no role in mandating equal access to early voting. As for election assistance funding, “that has nothing to do with COVID-19,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

How we conduct an election during a pandemic has everything to do with COVID-19. These senators could not be more wrong or short-sighted. They need only look to the March chaos in Ohio, where health fears forced Gov. Mike DeWine to postpone primary elections just hours before polls were scheduled to open. They should listen to worried election administrators in Wisconsin, deluged by a half-million absentee ballot requests for the state’s April 4th primary, more than double the number received in 2016. And they should study the growing list of states that have also pushed primaries into spring, which includes Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana.

Our democracy deserts could affect the fall election: Some states might step up and fully fund vote by mail themselves, while others do not. Some states may protect poll workers and voters from long lines, and others may subject them to health risks.

More frightfully, it’s enough to make some wonder whether the real purpose behind the GOP’s lack of urgency is to make it so difficult to safely hold elections in some states this November that state legislatures must exercise their constitutional right to choose Electoral College electors, tipping crucial swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin into chambers gerrymandered to advantage Republicans even when they win fewer statewide votes.

Can we put an end to the unchecked growth of unfair democracy deserts? Will we reinvigorate our commitment to political equality for everyone, no matter where you live, in this moment of unparalleled crisis? The kind of nation we will become lies in the balance.

David Daley is the author of the national best-seller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”