[Opinion] Protecting the Right to Vote During a Pandemic

Wednesday, Apr 29, 2020

Lines of masked Wisconsinites reached around corners of city blocks as residents braved rain and hail in the midst of a historic pandemic, all to cast a ballot in their state election. Despite medical experts urging social distancing, despite the governor's stay-at-home order, many Wisconsin voters were forced out of their homes to wait in hours-long lines to exercise their right to vote. 

"This is ridiculous" read a sign one voter held as she waited over two hours to vote in Milwaukee.

Republican majorities in the state legislature, state Supreme Court, and U.S. Supreme Court created this crisis by prioritizing politics over public health, foreshadowing a dangerous election season through the rest of this year. 

With a majority constructed from some of the most severe gerrymandering in the country, Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature refused the Democratic governor Tony Evers' measures to either mail a ballot to every registered voter or postpone the election as many other states have done to allow for more people to safely vote by mail. The courts refused to extend the absentee ballot deadline, despite the fact that thousands of voters did not receive their ballots in time as demand overwhelmed the election infrastructure. The Supreme Court made their ruling remotely, telling Wisconsin voters to face the risk of coronavirus while being unwilling to do so themselves. in a similarly incongruous image, the Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly posed in a polling location covered head to toe in PPE while telling voters it was completely safe to vote.  

Two weeks later, the amount of time it typically takes for symptoms to occur, Wisconsin health officials have traced at least 36 voters and poll workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 since the election. 

What happened in Wisconsin highlights the need for comprehensive reform of voting procedures nationwide to ensure that people can safely vote in upcoming elections. According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, over 418,000 absentee ballots that were distributed to voters had not been returned by the Election Day, and nearly 9,400 more voters had not received their requested ballots. The limited capacity of the vote by mail system in Wisconsin forced many voters to go the the polls in person. But this burden was not shouldered evenly by everyone. While there were hours-long lines in Milwaukee, a Democratic-leaning city with the largest black population in the state, other more white and Republican parts of the state had no such issues, with more polling locations and curbside voting. 

These effects in Milwaukee were targeted. On Election Day, only five polling locations were open in the city, down from the usual 182. Milwaukee County has a staggering disparity in coronavirus cases and deaths among black residents. Although they comprise just 26% of the county's population, as of April 29 black residents accounted for 44% of the cases and 52% of the deaths from the coronavirus. Nevertheless, they were forced to further risk their health in order to exercise their right to vote. Their risk was compounded by poll closures that created long lines and impeded social distancing. Meanwhile, in wealthier white areas, voters faced less risk casting their ballots. It cannot be argued that all Wisconsinites had the equal right to vote when there were such stark differences in their experiences. This is what voter suppression is all about.

Milwaukee voters line up to cast their ballots.

Milwaukee voters line up to cast their ballots. Photo by Patricia McKnight / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

These disparities in Wisconsin were an exacerbation of the already existing methods of voter suppression nationwide. In the Texas primary on Super Tuesday, for example, voters in areas with high populations of people of color waited in lines for as long as five hours to cast their ballot. Since Texas was released from federal oversight due to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, seventy percent of Texas' poll closures occurred in the fifty counties whose black and Latino populations increased the most, where the state closed 542 sites. These changes have concrete effects on voter turnout.

President Trump's own words further reveal the motives behind such voter suppression. Referring to House Democrats' proposals to reform voting processes during the pandemic, Trump said the policies would create "levels of voting that if you'd ever agreed to it, you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again." With this objection, Trump reveals the motivation for Republicans' restrictive voter laws: to protect their own power by keeping the opposition from being able to cast a vote. But the right to vote should not be contingent on who you vote for. Election policy should be based around making sure everyone has equal access to the ballot box, especially when their health depends on it. While Republicans seek to put up as many barriers as legally permissible to keep turnout low, it is vital that states institute reforms to ensure that everyone can exercise their right and have a voice in politics.

When you combine these Republic schemes to suppress people of color's right to vote with the persisting dangers of the coronavirus pandemic, the November elections present a serious threat to the democratic process that necessitates reform of voting laws.

Kamala Harris, a Democratic senator for California, proposed a set of reforms such as making absentee voting available for everyone in all states and a twenty-day early voting period to minimize lines for those who want to vote in person. Other bills go further, proposing that the government mail all registered voters a ballot without them having to request it, with prepaid postage to send in their vote. While unlikely to pass the Senate or be signed by the president, states should take up these policies themselves to ensure that everyone exercise their right to vote without risking their health.

This year, of course, features a crucial presidential election. But there are also important races on the state level that will determine who draws new maps based on the census results, which will shape politics nationwide for the next decade. If Republican legislatures like the one in Wisconsin maintain control, they can draw gerrymandered maps that lock Democrats out of power and continue to disenfranchise voters. The stakes of this year's elections demonstrate the urgency of voting reforms to ensure that no one has to choose between their health and the health of their democracy. 


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