Wisconsin, a state with a long progressive political tradition where state-level innovations were once the rule, recently held a vote-in-person primary election in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The election went ahead after the Republican dominated state legislature sued the Democratic governor who had wanted to delay the election and create time to allow more folks to vote by mail.
The conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled for the Republicans, as subsequently did the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s rationale was tortured to say the least. Courts ought not to interfere with state election laws, the majority said, notwithstanding the inconvenience of an unprecedented pandemic. Oh, yes, and notwithstanding the precedent the Court established in 2000 when five justices handed the presidency to George W. Bush by ordering that Florida state law be set aside and a recount stopped.
Failing to see the Republican action in Wisconsin and the Court’s ultimate decision to ignore reality as anything less than an effort at partisan vote manipulation is failing to see the forest for the trees.
In Wisconsin there were numerous predictions that hundreds of thousands of people showing up in polling places would surely lead to more coronavirus cases and sure enough the Milwaukee health commissioner reported earlier this week that at least seven new cases of the virus are traceable to people exercising their franchise.
All this is a sickly preview of what is likely to happen in November. Failure to adopt vote by mail policies nationally could profoundly impact the presidential and other elections this year. It’s really not too much to call it a crisis for democracy. It doesn’t have to be.
In a couple of weeks my vote by mail ballot will arrive in my post office box in Oregon. I’ll mark the ballot in the privacy of my dining room table and mail it back or drop the ballot in a special collection box in town. The ballot will need to arrive or be dropped off by election day – May 19. Oregon has been exclusively a vote by mail state for 20 years and it works like a charm – clear, easy and clean. Oregon’s system enjoys bipartisan support, as well.
“Vote-by-mail is cheap and convenient,” Oregon’s Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno said recently, “it’s given Oregon one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country, and we’ve proven that it’s very secure. In the wake of COVID-19, it also prevents voters from having to choose between staying safe at home and casting their ballot.”
According to records assembled by the conservative Heritage Foundation voter fraud in Oregon is hardly a problem since there is strict enforcement with fines for offenders. As the Eugene Register-Guard reported recently Oregon has had only 15 vote fraud cases since 2000, compared with Mississippi’s 29 cases since 2000 and Minnesota’s 130 cases since 2009. Those states are about the same size as Oregon and only allow in-person voting. In another analysis, The Brennan Center at New York University Law School has calculated the rate of Oregon voter fraud on 100 million ballots cast at .0012 percent.
Voting by mail has other benefits, as well. I suspect we’ve all been in the position of standing in the voting booth looking at the candidates in an obscure special district election or down ballot race and thinking: “Who should I support for the board of the local mosquito abatement district or I don’t know anything about the candidates for state treasurer.” While sitting at the dining room table filling out your vote by mail ballot you can actually take a moment and educate yourself about such things.
Vote by mail is also good for working families, seniors, people with disabilities who may have trouble getting to the polls and citizens who are non-native speakers of English.
Additionally, and some campaigns really dislike this part, vote by mail helps minimize the impact of the last-minute campaign smear. When ballots start arriving two weeks before election day the spurious, two days before the election slimy charge that leaves no time for response isn’t nearly as effective. Campaigns are, at least slightly, less dirty as a result.
Oregon is remarkably fast at counting ballots, too and results are often known within an hour or so of the polls closing.
Oregon’s senior senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, is a national champion for voting by mail and has been joined by a host of Democrats in pushing for the idea. But time is running out to get a system in place by November, and of course Mitch McConnell is obstructing.
Republicans generally don’t like vote by mail and President Trump has spun his usual fantasy arguments and conspiracy theories about the process. “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters,” Trump said recently and incoherently. “They go collect them. They are fraudulent in many cases. They have to vote. They should have voter ID, by the way.” Trump, of course, has voted absentee since becoming a Florida resident, but never mind that. The man knows what he doesn’t know.
Trump went on to say the quiet part out loud, admitting his real concern with mail voting, as he said, is that “for whatever reason, [it] doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
Total fantasy. Utah, one of the most Republican states in the country, has gone almost entirely to vote by mail. Colorado, a swing state, has voted by mail since 2014.
The canard that making it easier for people to vote would harm Republicans was clearly behind the recent Wisconsin debacle. Republican leaders there desperately wanted to help a conservative state supreme court judge win re-election and they cynically calculated that pandemic impacted in-person voting would hurt turnout and help the judge. Ironically, even while many Wisconsinites requested absentee ballots and hundreds of thousands voted in person, often wearing masks while standing in line at a drastically reduced number of polling places, the conservative judge lost in a landslide. Turns out that people like to vote. Little wonder some Republicans want to make it difficult.
When historian Alexander Keyssar, who has written extensively on voting rights, testified before Congress in 2006 he said, “Our history makes plain that the right to vote can be as fragile as it is fundamental.” Protecting our right to vote – and making it easier by voting by mail – should represent a bipartisan commitment to democracy. That it doesn’t speaks directly to the fragility of the American experience.