COVID-19 Is Threatening Democracy: Vote By Mail Can Help Save It (OPINION)

Apr 13, 2020
3:44 PM

In this Nov. 1, 2016, file photo, mail-in ballots for the 2016 General Election are shown at the elections ballot center at the Salt Lake County Government Center, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

MIAMI — Is Wisconsin the place where American democracy went to die?

We are in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that has been horribly mismanaged by the Trump administration. The federal government has given no real concrete directives on how to tackle this crisis and has instead opted to pass the buck to governors that have either received insufficient support or have acted irresponsibly at the cost of further spread of the virus.

In the midst of this chaos, the state of Wisconsin held it’s primary presidential election and a highly contested state Supreme Court election. To those that have followed Wisconsin politics closely, this was disappointing but not shocking. After all, this is a state that has over the last decade, seen a rapid disintegration of it’s political systems and culture.

After the election of Republican Governor Scott Walker in 2010, an increasingly toxic political climate took hold in Wisconsin, and the state Supreme Court has been a flashpoint of these political battles. In the Trump era, Republicans have doubled down on their fight to dominate the judicial branch at all levels, leading to scorched earth political campaigns.

The Wisconsin state Supreme Court is no stranger to controversy. They were thrust into the public spotlight in 2011 after upholding GOP legislation limiting employee collective bargaining rights. They have protected former Governor Walker from investigations on campaign finance violations. After the election of Democratic Governor Tony Evers, the court upheld an effort by the GOP controlled legislature to limit the authority of Evers.

In the days prior to the primary election, Governor Evers finally succumbed to pressure and issued an executive order to postpone the election. This was soon overturned by the state’s Supreme Court, forcing voters to stand in line for hours, six feet apart, under rain and sleet in the midst of the deadly pandemic. Why would the court take this horribly irresponsible and cruel decision? The GOP calculus was that depressed vote turnout gave conservative justice Dan Kelly a better opportunity to retain his seat. They knew that this form of deadly voter suppression benefited their position.

All rational outside observers knew holding the Wisconsin election was a bad idea. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had repeatedly called for the primary to be postponed and Wisconsin Democrats were instrumental in pushing Governor Evers to take action. After irresponsibly holding primary elections on March 17, Florida saw a spike of COVID-19 cases in the state, including poll workers in Broward County, all easily preventable if the elections were postponed or moved to vote by mail as was the case in Alaska.

Unfortunately, Republicans have now begun an all out assault against vote by mail which reflects their overall pattern of advocating for policies that make it harder for Americans to vote. Trump has been leading the charge against vote by mail, saying at a press conference that, “mail ballots, they cheat, people cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they are cheaters.” When immediately called out by a reporter on the fact that he voted absentee in the Florida primary last month, this bizarre exchanged happened:

TRUMP: Well sure, I could vote by mail for the…

REPORTER: But how do you reconcile that?

TRUMP: Because I’m allowed to. Well that’s called out of state—you know why I voted? Because I happened to be in the White House and I won’t be able to go to Florida and vote.

Trump is a hypocrite and there is not much sense in harping on that fact. It’s plain for anyone to see. What is worth focusing on here is this. The Trump administration through their incompetence and corruption has exacerbated a global pandemic during a crucial election year, putting our democratic processes under extreme pressure and stress.

The Wisconsin election shows us what it looks like when a political party puts their sheer political ambition over the public wellbeing and acts in an authoritarian manner to do. Voters are forced to choose between participating in our democracy and protecting their own health and the health of their community.

It does not have to be like this.

A new Brennan Center poll finds that four out of five Americans believe that states should give all voters the option to vote by mail this November. That number includes 57 percent of Republicans. Of course, in person voting should be preserved as an option for folks who prefer it or need it, but why not make it easier for people to vote? Our democracy is healthier when people can vote.

More urgently, no one should have to choose between their health and their ability to participate in the democratic process. People are not looking forward to putting their health in jeopardy by going to crowded polling places if the virus has a resurgence this fall. A major test for our democracy will be to make nationwide vote-by-mail available to all voters.


Thomas Kennedy is a communications fellow for Community Change Action. He was a member of the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign and tweets from @Tomaskenn.