GOP Uses Coronavirus Pandemic To Make It Harder To Vote

Wisconsin isn't the only state trying to restrict voting rights right now. Republican officials in other states are blocking vote-by-mail and passing voter ID.

Republicans across the country are resisting efforts to help people vote without jeopardizing public safety during the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic has hit the United States right in the middle of the primary election season. A number of states ― including ones with Republicans in charge ― have responded by postponing elections or trying to make it easier for voters to cast ballots through the mail, so that they don’t get sick.

But other Republicans have used the virus as an opportunity to further restrict voting access.

They’ve blocked vote-by-mail measures, openly complaining that such initiatives would mean more people could vote.

They’ve created commissions to crack down on supposed voter fraud.

And they’ve pushed legislation putting up more hurdles for people to vote.

Wisconsin is going ahead with its primary election on Tuesday, despite warnings from public health officials and widespread concerns from poll workers that they will catch or spread the coronavirus.

On Monday, Republicans challenged the Democratic governor’s attempt to postpone the election. The conservative majority on the state Supreme Court sided with the GOP legislators. On the same day, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court refused to extend the deadline to submit absentee ballots in Wisconsin, another win for the GOP in the state and the Republican National Committee.

Every one of the liberal justices dissented, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warning of “massive disenfranchisement.”

“A voter cannot deliver for postmarking a ballot she has not received. Yet tens of thousands of voters who timely requested ballots are unlikely to receive them by April 7, the Court’s postmark deadline,” she wrote.

The day was a massive win for conservatives, who have been laser-focused on grabbing control over the judicial system and have worked for years in Wisconsin to maintain GOP control.

And not coincidentally, one of the down-ballot elections happening Tuesday is a state Supreme Court race that could, potentially, reduce the conservative majority from 5-2 on the bench to 4-3. High turnout was believed to potentially hurt the conservative incumbent, Daniel Kelly, because the election falls on the same day as a Democratic presidential primary ― meaning more liberal-leaning voters would likely be coming out.

Wisconsin has received the most attention in recent days, but other attempts to suppress voter turnout are happening around the nation.

Voters masked against the coronavirus line up at Riverside High School in Milwaukee for Wisconsin's primary election on Tuesday.
Voters masked against the coronavirus line up at Riverside High School in Milwaukee for Wisconsin's primary election on Tuesday.
Morry Gash/Associated Press

Blocking Expanded Vote-By-Mail

In New Mexico last week, state Republicans filed a lawsuit to block an attempt by 27 county clerks to switch to a vote-by-mail system for the June primary.

In the coronavirus stimulus bill in Congress, Democrats pushed for more funding to increase absentee and vote-by-mail options. The final version of the legislation had $400 million for the effort, which was less than they originally wanted.

Republicans were against making it easier for people to vote by mail during the pandemic.

“Universal vote by mail would be the end of our republic as we know it,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) tweeted.

In a Fox News interview, President Donald Trump was more explicit about why he didn’t like it: He believed it would increase turnout ― and therefore help Democrats.

“The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump said. “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

In Georgia, state House Speaker David Ralston (R) opposed officials’ decision to mail every registered voter a form so that they can request an absentee ballot for the May 19 primary election.

Even though Republicans control the state and made this decision, he still said he was worried about fraud ― but also that absentee ballots would make it easier for people to vote.

“The president said it best ― this will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia,” Ralston said in a recent interview with FetchYourNews.

“Every registered voter is going to get one of these. Now, I ask you ... what was turnout in the primary back in 2018 or 2016. Was it 100%? No. No. It’s way, way, way lower. This will certainly drive up turnout,” he added.

“Any time any elected official of any party indicates that fewer people voting is better, is troublesome,” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the voting rights project at the nonpartisan Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Voter Fraud Commissions

Both Arizona and Georgia set up commissions or task forces this month to investigate potential voter fraud. Voter fraud is incredibly rare, but Republicans have used the specter of it as an excuse to implement more restrictive measures, making it harder for people to go to the polls.

Voter ID

Late last month, the GOP-controlled legislature in Kentucky passed legislation making it harder for people to vote, requiring government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. The presidential primary in Kentucky is set to take place on June 23. But DMV offices ― where many people would obtain a photo ID ― are closed for the foreseeable future, due to the coronavirus.

Gov. Andy Beshear (D) vetoed the GOP bill. But the legislature is set to reconvene on April 13 and could override the veto.

Verification Of Absentee Ballots

A handful of states require a witness to verify that someone is submitting his or her own absentee ballot. Mississippi is a state with especially burdensome rules, requiring a voter to get both an absentee ballot request, and then the actual ballot, notarized before it’s sent back. Notaries can be difficult to find in the best of times. During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a public health risk. Many notary offices around the country have closed down or reduced their hours.

The Lawyers Committee has a lawsuit pending in the state to try to stop the requirement.

In North Carolina, Republicans are opposing election officials’ recommendations that the state make it easier for people to vote by mail, including by relaxing rules requiring absentee ballots to have signatures from two witnesses or a notary. Phil Berger, the GOP state Senate leader, dismissed such measures as a plot by “progressive, liberal Democratic groups.”

Voting rights advocates like Rosenberg say the coronavirus pandemic shows why increased access to the ballot box is necessary.

He said states should make it easier to obtain absentee ballots ― ideally by sending absentee ballots to every eligible voter ― implement same-day and automatic voter registration, and ensure that there are safe and accessible polling places. States that postponed their elections should also extend the registration deadlines. And any vote-by-mail system should also have provisions for in-person voting, since some people can’t vote by mail.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is out with a plan that she wants included in the next coronavirus relief legislation that would implement voting rights protections.

Provisions include requiring states to mail every voter a ballot with a prepaid return envelope, $4 billion in federal funding for states to transition to universal vote-by-mail for the November elections, and banning states from purging people from their voting rolls unless there is a request from the person to be removed ― or documentary evidence of death or change of address. In other words, the burden would be on the election officials to make the case for removal, not the individual to make the case to be kept on.

“Americans are struggling with the dual crises of a public health emergency and a looming economic depression,” Warren wrote in the rollout of her plan. “Meanwhile, Republicans are using the crisis to accelerate an undemocratic power grab and disenfranchise millions.”

Rosenberg said it’s up to the states to determine whether elections should be delayed in the primary ― but there is no reason to postpone in November.

“I want to emphasize that there should be no thought of delaying the November election,” said Rosenberg. “We have plenty of time to prepare for November in a way that allows for the election to take place in an orderly and safe fashion, and making it easier for voters to vote by several means, including in-person and by mail.”

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