At this country’s founding, members of the ruling class in most states granted the vote only to property-owning white men—- themselves. A right to vote was expanded during the nineteenth century, first to include all white men, then black men (although that right was obliterated by the end of the century and had to be regained in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s). After 1900 women, Indians, and Puerto Ricans who lived on the mainland were able to vote. The only citizens legally denied the vote were felons (who can vote in some states), people who live in US Territories and those below age 18.
Briefly, one person one vote
In 1965, passage of the Voting Rights Act ensured that state and local governments could not deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on their race, color, or membership in a minority language group. Or so we thought.
The fact that more citizens call themselves Democrats indicated to Republicans that one-person-one-vote put them at a disadvantage—the more people who voted, the Republicans believed, the less likely it was that Republicans could win elections.
With that in mind, Republicans have devised strategies to circumvent voting rights. After a decade or two focused on winning in state legislatures, the Republicans turned to a tactic as old as the republic to disenfranchise voters: Gerrymandering. Once in power in statehouses, Republicans were able to redraw legislative district boundaries to favor Republican candidates. As one example, Wisconsin Republicans engineered an election map that resulted in Democrat candidates in the last election getting the most votes overall, but losing in a majority of the districts. The result is that Republicans dominate the legislature with a super-majority.
Gerrymandering isn’t the only tool in the Republican disenfranchisement toolbox. From President Trump on down, Republicans claimed, falsely, but convincingly to their base, that Democrats across the country were engaged in extensive voting fraud. Ironically, the main documented case of fraud was carried out by North Carolina Republicans.
In this time of Covid19, where does the Republican project to disenfranchise voters leave us?
In states around the country Republican legislatures have enacted measures to discourage voting among groups presumed likely to vote Democratic. Voter ID laws target black people, other rules deny the vote to students living away from home. Several states have wiped thousands of people from the voting rolls. A new challenge to robust voter turnout came in April when the Wisconsin and US Supreme Courts declared null the governor’s executive order extending the deadline for mail-in ballots, with the result that voters had to risk their lives at a limited number of overcrowded polling places.
Who will get to vote in the 2020 election?
In this time of Covid19, where does the Republican project to disenfranchise voters leave us? We will have a presidential election in November. How we will conduct that election will, in all likelihood, determine the outcome of an election that is among the most crucial in our history.
There is no doubt Republicans will attempt to disrupt the election and eliminate as many voters as possible. “I don’t want everybody to vote,” declared influential conservative activist Paul Weyrich. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Congressional Democrats proposed a national vote-by-mail program in the first Covid19 stimulus package. Without it, tens of millions of Americans could be compelled to stand in line at polling places in close proximity to one another just to participate in the democratic process. Or they might stay home.
Trump and Republicans opposed the funding for nationwide mail-in balloting. On Fox and Friends, Trump complained about the proposal, “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.” He pressed the issue in one of his daily campaign events masquerading as a Covid19 news conference: “Mail ballots, they cheat. Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters. They go collect them. They are fraudulent in many cases. They have to vote. They should have voter ID, by the way.”
Yet, as elections expert Charles Stewart of MIT reminded us, “voting fraud in the United States is rare.” The US military has used absentee voting successfully since the Civil War. Five states, including Washington, vote exclusively by mail. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have systems in place for no-excuse-necessary absentee voting. Another seventeen states allow mail-in ballots, but require an excuse to vote absentee. According to the rules in most of those states, if you’re ill you can get an absentee ballot. Does the possibility of being infected by a virus in a pandemic meet that requirement? Unless some miraculous cure appears before the election, it seems likely that we will find out.
If Congress adopts universal mail-in voting it might mean that more voters come to the polls—to the dismay of Republicans. A massive defeat of Trump and a sweeping rejection of Republican minority rule could, if voters demand it and Democrats allow the progressive wing to lead their party, signal a turn for the better. In a country altered irrevocably by the pandemic we might see movement toward a more just and equitable society: health care for all, fully funded public education, income equality, worker’s rights, a substantial social safety net, and most importantly, since this pandemic is certainly a rehearsal for what awaits us if we continue to ignore it, focused attention to climate change.
A worse world is also possible
But even with an election that turns out Trump’s corrupt regime there is a dark side. Trump and his minions will not accept defeat with equanimity. Trump will tear the nation apart when he loses. He will support and condone violence in the streets as he did with his tweets supporting protests against state governors in April. As we contemplate how to hold an election in November, we must also contemplate the consequences that are sure to follow.
Gary Murrell lives and is sheltering in place in Hoquiam.