Republicans Will Use the Coronavirus to Suppress the Vote

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The April 7 election in Wisconsin was a moral, legal, administrative and public-health fiasco. It is also a model that Republicans intend to duplicate in November.

After Republican legislators and Republican judges forced Wisconsin to proceed with in-person voting over the objections of the Democratic governor, many voters had to choose between protecting their right to vote and protecting their health. Milwaukee, a city of almost 600,000, had just five in-person polling stations, causing long lines and lengthy waits. Some voters appear to have contracted the coronavirus.

Despite forcing voters to wade into a lethal virus, Republicans lost the marquee race for a Wisconsin state supreme court seat. Perhaps their vote suppression efforts were simply too obvious and egregious, inspiring some otherwise less-committed voters to run the corona gauntlet.

It’s impossible to know the net effect of this, or other, Republican vote suppression efforts. What’s clear is that Republicans in many states are committed to placing obstacles in the path of Democratic voters. Few Republicans appear to have qualms about this debasement of democracy; occasionally they celebrate it. The pandemic is a test of how far they will go.

After Democrats in Texas sued to allow vote by mail next November, to avoid exposure to coronavirus, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement that fear of coronavirus is not the kind of “disability” that enables Texans to qualify for mail ballots. “Their request diminishes voting protections the Legislature has made available to Texans with actual illness or disabilities,” he said.

What nonsense — letting some people vote by mail in no way “diminishes” the ability of others to vote by mail. What’s more, one of the criteria for obtaining a mail ballot in Texas is simply age. Voters 65 or older — a cohort also known as the GOP base — are eligible. If others run the risk of disease by voting in person, especially in densely populated areas that vote Democratic, well, voting’s not for everybody. 

New Mexico Republicans have reached a similar conclusion. They sued to stop the state from holding a mail-in primary vote on June 2, claiming vote-by-mail “invites statewide fraud.”

In Kentucky, the Republican legislature this month overrode the Democratic governor’s veto and required voters to show a government-issued ID to vote. One of the law’s stated rationales is to “minimize the burdensome obligation that comes with any uncertainty in election results.” What uncertainty? Whose obligation? To do what? They’re just words.

Republicans voice doubts about election integrity so that they can address the “uncertainty” they themselves have manufactured with vote-suppression tactics. The notion that voter ID laws enhance security has been exposed as a fraud time and again, but never with more comic effect than in a 2018 federal trial in Kansas. Under oath, Republican “experts” were unable to produce evidence of voter fraud despite their collective decades of toil in the field. They were humiliated in court but never repudiated by conservatives.

Those who lack government ID are more likely to be poor and less likely to be white, and Republicans figure those odds work in their favor. The pandemic may help here as well. Kentucky voters who go online hoping to learn how to get a state-issued ID are currently told that “all statewide license issuance locations” are “closed to the public until further notice.”

Other efforts to inhibit voting continue apace. In North Carolina this month, the right-wing activist group Judicial Watch sued state officials and Mecklenburg and Guilford counties to force a purge of thousands of registered voters from voter rolls before November’s election. The head of the state League of Women Voters called the effort “unlawful and immoral.” But law and morality are no match for conservative fears that democracy will strip them of power and hand it to their more numerous opponents.

The pandemic creates challenges for voting. Those challenges may be especially acute in states that rush to reopen, thereby increasing the risk of a fall resurgence of coronavirus. But the complications, at least in terms of voting, are manageable if you want them to be.

Election law expert Richard Hasen has proposed a sensible system for minimizing risk in voting by mail, and requiring every state to make mail ballots available this fall. The Brennan Center at New York University recommends a series of preparations to minimize the systemic stress of more than 130 million Americans casting votes in a pandemic. The National Vote at Home Institute has issued its own series of recommendations on how states can expand voting by mail.

Most of these recommendations amount to common sense. But all depend on a common value: that voting is a right that must be protected for every eligible citizen. Many Republicans share that value. (The state of Utah is a leader in vote-by-mail.)  Yet the Republican Party of Donald Trump, by and large, does not. Trump repeatedly seeks to damage faith in voting to advance his personal interests. If past is prologue, he will undermine both the election in November and public confidence in it.

For those who value the democratic vote, the pandemic is an obstacle to overcome. For many Republicans, it represents an opportunity to exploit. Republicans are not preparing now to make the general election go smoothly. Quite the opposite. The chaos president, and his chaos party, are setting the stage for a dangerous mess in November.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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