Our health crisis could easily become a democracy crisis as well

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The state of New York canceled its democratic primary on Monday, April 27. Officials cited the assured nature of the race now that Senator Bernie Sanders has dropped out along with concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. While this may seem like a reasonable step to take at first, it sets a dangerous precedent and invokes questions over how the coronavirus might impact elections moving forward. 

It seems appropriate here to acknowledge the extraordinary crisis we are experiencing in these times. However, just because our governments should take action to slow the spread of the pandemic, such as encouraging social distancing, that doesn’t mean that we can give up on our most important democratic values. In fact, it is in times of crisis that it’s most important for us to maintain our commitment to democracy. If we don’t adhere to our values when times are hard, those values don’t mean much.

This is why we should be worried when we hear speculation that Trump might attempt to delay the November election from democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (despite the fact that such an action would require Congressional approval). Even if such an event seems unlikely, the fact that a major presidential candidate is saying such a thing exemplifies the possible danger that our democracy is in at the moment.

One of the most important aspects to having a fair and democratic election is actually giving people a method to vote — whether that be in person or some other alternative, such as voting by mail. This is especially important considering how coronavirus might impact the November election. In this vein, Democrats in congress have been pushing for increased absentee voting.

Voting by mail may be necessary to protect us from COVID-19; Wisconsin’s primary was a clear example, where at least 7 cases of coronavirus were tied to in person voting. However, vote by mail is equally (if not more) important for preserving the integrity of our elections. A Pew Research Center poll suggests that 63% of voters would be uncomfortable going to the polls in person, given the circumstances of the current pandemic. Having an election where the majority of the country believes that they would be put in danger by going to the polls is a serious threat to the integrity of said election; elections rely on people actually voting in them.

Yet Donald Trump, along with many Republicans, has expressed opposition to vote by mail efforts, claiming that it allows for opportunities for voter fraud. This argument is at best dangerously uniformed and at worst, an outright lie. Trump’s intentions were better revealed through his comments on the Democrat plan to expand vote by mail: “if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Trump’s goals in opposing vote by mail are not election security, but instead victory for him and his party, which, while understandable, does not bode well for the future of American democracy. This is despite there being significant evidence that vote by mail doesn’t favor either party’s share of turnout.

In contrast with Trump, the American electorate as a whole supports voting by mail, with 58% backing national changes that would allow anyone to use an absentee ballot. It’s time for us to accept the will of the American populace and institute federal measures to ensure everyone has a chance to vote safely in November. We must adapt our elections to the coronavirus crisis, just like we have adapted other aspects of our life.

States across the country have already led the charge in allowing residents to vote by mail and preserve their safety. This includes states across the political aisle: both the reliably Republican Utah and reliably Democratic Hawaii make the short list of states that conduct elections primarily by mail already.

Yet allowing absentee ballots alone will not ensure the integrity of our elections come November; we must also ensure that everyone can have access to these ballots in the ongoing fight against voter suppression in this country. This means removing the postage requirements on absentee ballots that have been likened to a poll tax in states like Georgia. This means continuing efforts in increasing access to elections from before the virus struck, like fighting for the Florida constitutional amendment to allow felons to vote — which was passed by the populace but blocked by a Republican legislature. 

Most of all, we must not allow the fact that we are fighting for the health of ourselves and our communities dissuade us from the fact that we must continue fighting for our democracy if we want to keep it. We should by all means take the steps necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19, but those steps must be accompanied by an assurance that our democratic elections will continue.

Featured Image (at the top of this post): Capitol building in Washington D.C. PHOTO CREDIT: Ben Alexander

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