the national interest

The Next Coronavirus Bill Is Democrats’ Last Chance to Ensure a Fair Election

Photo: Brendan Smilowski/AFP via Getty Images

As House Democrats set to work on the next round of economic relief legislation, they face a more urgent choice than they seem to realize. If they send that bill to President Trump without measures guaranteeing voting rights during the pandemic, they are signing a death warrant for the 2020 election.

A vision of the future sits before us in Wisconsin. The coronavirus has devastated in-person voting. Due to a shortage of poll volunteers willing to risk their lives, 175 of Milwaukee’s 180 voting locations will be closed. Voting clerks have run short of envelopes needed to process the surge in absentee ballots, thousands of voters have yet to receive the ballot they requested, and even many voters who can obtain an absentee ballot will be excluded by rules requiring witness signatures (which are difficult to obtain during a quarantine) and voter ID (which is impossible to find.)

The state’s Republicans have adamantly opposed either delaying the election or expanding mail voting options. “Hundreds of thousands of workers are going to their jobs every day, serving in essential roles in our society. There’s no question that an election is just as important as getting takeout food,” insisted the state legislature’s Republican leaders. The comparison is fatuous. People get food because they need it to survive. They are far less likely to venture out to a polling location, where they are forced to wait in absurdly long lines at the risk of their health for a symbolic affirmation of civic duty that gives them no concrete benefit.

The logic of this position is chillingly clear. The coronavirus, which has struck dense urban areas much harder and faster, has had a disproportionate impact on Milwaukee. And so far, absentee ballots have also been returned at a far higher rate in outlying Republican towns, Ari Berman reports. Republicans have apparently calculated that a pandemic that wreaks disproportionate harm on urban communities creates a form of mass Democratic disenfranchisement more powerful than anything they could legislate on their own.

This is what November may well look like. 63 percent of registered voters told the Pew Research Center they would be uncomfortable voting in person. Flu pandemics often recede in the summer and return in autumn. It is far from clear that the United States will have either effective testing or treatments. What percentage of voters will be willing to visit a polling station seven months from now?

Delaying the election would provoke a constitutional crisis. Trump may be able to win by following the Wisconsin Republican strategy of using the virus to suppress urban voting. Many states will be unwilling or — given the catastrophic effect the recession is having on their budgets — unable to handle absentee-ballot requests. And the Supreme Court has just demonstrated that it will not lift a finger to protect the rights of voters trapped by stay-at-home orders and unable to obtain a ballot.

Trump has, indeed, openly endorsed the Wisconsin strategy and signaled his intent to follow it. Asked recently if he would support measures to allow mail-in voting in the fall, on the assumption the virus may scare off voters, he registered his adamant opposition. “It shouldn’t be mail-in voting,” he said; “it should be, you go to a poll and you proudly display yourself.”

In fact, there is no evidence Trump actually subscribes to this principle at all. Trump advisers, according to Politico, have said they are open to automatically sending absentee-ballot applications to voters over age 65 — which just happens to be the most Trump-friendly age demographic. Trump personally voted by mail in 2018, an odd decision for a man who supposedly believes everybody should march proudly to the polls. (Even before he was president, Trump was caught on film not knowing his proper voting location.)

As he often does, Trump blurted out his actual motivation several days before. Describing his objections to Democratic mail-voting provisions, he said, “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.” His calculation, correct or not, is that any mechanism allowing higher voter turnout will doom his election.

Given his hostility to high voter turnout, it would seem hard to fathom how Trump could be persuaded to support such a measure. Economic-rescue legislation is the only possible leverage. At the moment, he is open to more economic stimulus (“I will immediately ask Congress for more money to support small businesses under the #PPPloan if the allocated money runs out,” he tweeted, describing as a contingency what seems virtually certain.) He has also publicly called for a $2 trillion infrastructure bill and enhanced payments to the public. “We could very well do a second round of direct” payments, he said yesterday.

Republicans in Congress are probably not yet desperate enough for more economic legislation to allow mail-in voting, and the stock market has recently recovered some of its losses, but that gain is at least partially attributable to the expectation Congress will pass more aid. If and when unemployment rises again, social-distancing measures prove difficult to unwind, and more support is needed to keep businesses afloat, Republicans will begin to realize trillions of dollars in aid are needed to prevent a deep recession that would, incidentally, put them at risk of a Carter-style defeat, if not a Hoover-esque wipeout, that would drag down the congressional party.

Once Republicans grasp that they need legislation to avert an economic catastrophe, Democrats will have leverage to force them to accept measures to protect voting. Despite fearmongering about voter fraud, vote by mail is routine in most states and universal in several, with essentially no fraud. My colleague Ed Kilgore has laid out some ideas of the sorts of voting protections Democrats should demand (and what compromises they can accept). Once Democrats have passed an economic-relief bill, they have signed away all leverage they have and ever will have. Anything they don’t get in the next bill will not happen.

Democratic Senate leader Charles Schumer, asked yesterday if he would insist on early and absentee voting in the next economic rescue bill, merely said it was “very important.” If that remains the Democratic position, then they will get little or nothing. There may be one, two, many Wisconsins to come. However badly Trump bungles the coronavirus response, his ineptitude may cause a level of social disintegration that voter turnout plummets to a level he might conceivably win even in the face of mass discontent.

The previous round of economic relief was the Democrats’ best chance to ensure a real election takes place in November. The next round will be their last chance.

Next Coronavirus Bill Is Last Chance to Save the Election