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Both Parties Must Protect the November Election from Covid-19

Holding an election safely and accessibly during a pandemic shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s a patriotic duty.

April 3, 2020
Bin full of mailed votes.
Associated Press

This originally appeared in USA Today.

Once again, President Donald Trump has said out loud the stuff you aren’t supposed to say — this time about Democrats’ failed push to include more early and mail voting in the coronavirus package he signed last week. "The things they had in there were crazy," Trump complained on “Fox and Friends.” “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

At least Trump doesn’t pretend solemn worry about voter fraud. He doesn’t rehash his boast that he really won the popular vote when you “deduct” millions of illegal voters, or insist that people cast ballots repeatedly by “changing their shirts.” Instead, he’s matter of fact about it all: The more voters there are, the worse he and his party will fare. That’s unseemly, at best, for an elected official in a constitutional democracy.

A sharpened strategy to restrict the vote comes at the worst possible time, just when election systems are placed under extraordinary stress by the challenge of running an election during a pandemic.

Voting by mail is not a partisan issue

Turnout in 2018 was the highest in a midterm in over a century, and experts expected record levels this year. But participation plunged in the Illinois primary when the virus first hit two weeks ago. By contrast, Arizona and Florida, which allowed early and mail in voting, saw much higher participation. Only strong action can make it so voters can fully participate this year.

To make voting safe in November, states will need to make it possible for everyone to vote by mail. (Today, 17 states lack that easy step.) The Brennan Center set out a plan now endorsed by 900 political scientists. For those who want to vote in person, expanded early voting is needed, with upgraded polling place security and sanitation. Deadlines for counting ballots will need to shift, since mail ballots take longer. And a public education campaign will have to alert citizens about new options and rules. All this would cost $2 billion.

The $400 million in a $2 trillion bill fell short of basic goals. Congress should pass the rest in its next funding package.

Now the action must turn to states. Some, such as Colorado or Oregon, vote nearly entirely by mail. California already sees nearly two-thirds of votes cast by mail. Other states lag far behind. In New York, for example, only 4% of votes are cast absentee. In some places, governors can move unilaterally. In others, now-scattered legislators must decide.

Both parties should seek high turnout 

That’s why Trump’s injection of partisan self-interest is especially ill advised. This is an issue shrouded in euphemism and cant. One of the president’s top political aides admitted in taped remarks to an audience of Wisconsin Republicans earlier this year, “Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places. Let’s start protecting our voters. We know where they are. … Let’s start playing offense a little bit.” The official, Justin Clark, explained that he was actually decrying the false notion that Republicans engaged in voter suppression. One is reminded of the Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

There will be plenty of time and room for partisan brawling between now and November. You can’t take politics out of politics. But it is illegitimate to aim to win by blocking your opponent’s supporters from the polls, rather than turning out your own vote. And the civic function of running elections should be embraced by all parties.

In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was determined to hold the election amid the Civil War, even though he thought he would lose. (He wrote his cabinet a sealed letter explaining what they should do in the event of an expected Democratic victory.) Lincoln explained to a crowd celebrating his victory, “The election was a necessity. We cannot have free Government without elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”

We can’t let the coronavirus conquer our democracy in 2020. Making it possible for voters to cast ballots is a core patriotic duty.