The Coming Ballot War

On Tuesday, with much of the country sheltering at home or practicing social distancing, voters in Wisconsin went to the polls to vote in their primary. The reason is partisan. Democratic Governor Tony Evers had issued an executive order delaying in-person voting, but it was challenged by the state’s Republican legislature and the challenge was upheld along partisan lines by the state supreme court. This made Wisconsin the only state not to delay an April primary or convert it to vote by mail. It’s not because Wisconsin Republicans care about how many people were going to vote for Donald Trump. There was a heated election for a state supreme court seat presently held by a conservative justice. If he is re-elected, Republicans will be in position to win a pending case that could purge hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls in what is expected to be the most pivotal state in the November presidential election. And with the coronavirus disproportionately affecting African American precincts in Milwaukee, where only five of 180 polling places were open on Tuesday, an in-person election tilts the playing field steeply in the Republicans’ favor. 

This poses a public health crisis and a crisis for democracy. To ask people to stand in long lines in close proximity at a time when all but the most necessary travel is being discouraged or forbidden puts their health and the health of their neighbors at risk. To give people the choice of taking that risk or forfeiting their right to participate in the election so blatantly disenfranchises voters that it will shatter the legitimacy of a Republican victory. But Wisconsin Republicans apparently prefer to win illegitimately than risk losing. It is a harbinger of what we might experience next November unless actions are taken now to protect the vote.

Fortunately, there is an easy remedy to this problem. States can allow residents to vote by mail, or cast absentee ballots for any reason. Presently, four states — Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Hawaii — only vote by mail, and quite a few others have some form of a vote-by-mail option or have relaxed absentee voting requirements.

Congressional Democrats pushed for a national vote-by-mail provision in the stimulus package passed last month to combat the economic fallout from the pandemic, but it was gutted in the final legislation. They will continue to press for a vote-by-mail provision in the all-but-certain next round of stimulus, but they are going to crash headlong into Republican resistance. While you will hear specious arguments about how vote by mail contributes to voter fraud and reasonable arguments about the logistical nightmare of printing, distributing, collecting and counting millions of ballots, the real issue is that Republicans are afraid mail-in balloting will increase participation in a way that’s detrimental to their prospects. Donald Trump admitted as much. “The things they had [about mail-in voting] in [the stimulus bill] were crazy,” Trump told Fox News. “They had things, levels of voting, that if you’d ever agree to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” This sentiment was seconded by the Speaker of the Georgia state House, who said vote by mail would be “extremely devastating to Republicans” in his state because of how much easier it would be for Democrats to vote. 

But the experience in Wisconsin has given the nation a glimpse of what things could look like if we do not give people the option to vote from home. This gives ammunition to Democrats as they press their case, but it is unlikely to move Republicans unless there is concerted public pressure behind-vote-by mail initiatives. Trump especially will resist with everything he has, because depressing the vote is all he has left after the Coronavirus upended his re-election strategy. As an incumbent who has never had the support of a majority of the country, Trump’s hopes depend on dividing the opposition, making his opponent unacceptable, and keeping the other side from voting by any means possible. But, in a crisis atmosphere, it will be much more difficult for Trump to exploit ideological divisions among Democrats, boost third party support among disaffected Sanders supporters, and get anyone to care about Hunter Biden’s exploits in Ukraine. Take away voter suppression — or worse, make it easier for people to vote — and the game plan collapses. This is why the coming ballot war will be one of the most important battles of the 2020 election cycle.