Democrats Must Act Now to Protect the Election

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With little but uncertainty ahead, Congress and the states must mobilize immediately to shift the nation to a largely vote-by-mail system by November. There are two obstacles to that goal — one practical, one political. Lurking behind both is the fear that President Donald Trump will seek to disrupt the vote to maintain power, and that Republicans and right-wing media will help him succeed.

The practical problems with voting in the midst of a pandemic are evident. Poll workers are often elderly — precisely the people who are most at risk. Some poll workers in states voting in the primary March 17 simply didn’t show up. Due to years of underfunding and neglect, even after Russian interference in 2016, election infrastructure in many states is substandard.

Many states are not currently equipped to manage large-scale vote by mail. All states will send absentee ballots to voters who request one. But only five states have transitioned to all-mail elections. Others have a hodgepodge of regulations governing vote-by-mail. And when millions of votes are involved, questions about ballot design, who qualifies as actively registered, how to forward ballots when residents change address and even postage costs become more complicated. Fraud is also a more legitimate (if still limited) concern when ballots are mailed.

Yet with a pandemic potentially holding sway in November, a dramatic expansion of vote-by-mail seems the best course to protect both a vulnerable democracy and at-risk voters. “Congress should pass a law requiring states to offer no-excuse absentee balloting for the November elections,” writes election-law expert Richard Hasen, a professor of law at the University of California at Irvine. “Congress has the power to do so, and it should fully fund the efforts. The bill has to be drafted carefully to protect all voters. But time is short.”

Dale Ho, head of the voting rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union, lays out a three-part process of educating voters about no-excuse absentee voting — meaning voters don’t need a reason to vote by mail — followed by ready access to mail ballots and early processing of absentee votes so that crucial states don’t produce a confidence-deflating logjam in counting.

Vote-by-mail, Hasen writes, would not only protect individuals’ voting rights. It would protect the democratic system, providing “a good argument against an attempt to try to postpone voting in November (or worse yet having state legislatures appoint presidential electors themselves without a vote of the people). Our democracy needs to continue to function, and the election could well be a referendum on President Donald Trump’s leadership during the coronavirus crisis. The worst result would be for Trump’s own incompetence to provide a basis for keeping him in office longer.”

And therein lies the political problem. For while there is a general academic consensus on sensible proposals to secure the vote, there is diminishing evidence that the Republican Party wishes to achieve that end. Trump, in particular, has been an election sabotage machine from the start. His 2016 campaign “welcomed” — special counsel Robert Mueller’s assessment — Russian support while Trump himself refused to say that he would concede if he lost. In an effort to subvert the 2020 election, he used the power of his office to extort Ukraine into announcing a bogus investigation of his political rival. Meanwhile, Trump repeatedly “jokes” about continuing in office beyond the constitutional limit of two terms.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell does not instill much more confidence than Trump. He told intelligence officials in 2016 that if they warned the public about Russian interference he would denounce it as a partisan attack. After the House passed election security legislation in early 2017, McConnell let the legislation die in the Senate without a hearing or vote. Only in December 2019, after a rising digital chorus of “Moscow Mitch,” did McConnell relent, agreeing to hundreds of millions in new funding while still refusing to allow Congress to dictate best security practices to local officials, including paper ballot trails and post-election audits to assure that votes are properly counted.

The anti-democratic virus is widespread in the GOP. Republican legislators in the swing states of North Carolina and Wisconsin sought to strip the governor’s offices in those states of power after voters elected Democratic governors. The former GOP governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, initially refused to concede the election he lost in 2019, though he eventually did. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp oversaw a huge purge of voters and falsely accused Democrats of hacking the Secretary of State website when he held that office.

Trump and McConnell desperately need Democratic support right now for fiscal stimulus to cushion the economic fallout from the coronavirus. Republicans are committed to making voting more difficult in the best of times. There is unlikely to be another moment when Democrats have the political leverage to secure the election. And if the election is not secured, Trump will undoubtedly be tempted to steal it — using the very crisis he has bungled as his alibi.

Such a result would certainly justify mass demonstrations and protests. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, they would be prohibited.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of 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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