“Mail-in voting is horrible. It’s corrupt,” declared President Trump earlier this week. When a reporter asked how he could reconcile that position with the fact that he had personally voted by mail in the last election, Trump replied, “Because I’m allowed to.” This perfectly circular logic — if more voters were permitted to vote by mail, they would also be “allowed to” — seemed not to satisfy him. Trump has refined his view, explaining that casting a ballot by mail is fine for members of the military and senior citizens, but is “ripe for fraud” when used by others:
Trump is not even attempting to formulate a facially neutral principle. He is simply asserting that members of the military and senior citizens — constituencies that lean Republican — can be trusted not to commit voter fraud, but that constituencies that might vote Democratic cannot. He is willing to support accommodations to allow Republican-leaning voters to vote without risking their health, but refuses to support any such accommodations for Democrats. (Trump campaign officials already confirmed this to Politico — they will allow mail voting for senior citizens, but not others.) The travesty that was Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin is his plan to win in November.
It’s not clear if Democrats have fully grasped the gravity of what Trump and his party are attempting to do. The coronavirus poses a threat to elections in general, but a special threat to urban voters, who tend to face more crowded polling stations. Republicans are very willing to take active measures — like strict voter ID, or the poll tax Florida Republicans have tried to impose — but the virus makes active measures unnecessary. Republicans have calculated that the public-health threat of the virus will suppress the urban vote for them. All they have to do is block any changes to the election system and allow nature to run its course.
While Trump’s justifications for this policy are the crudest and most transparent, he has plenty of support. The simplest way for Republicans to justify allowing a pandemic election is to hide behind proceduralism. National Review’s David Harsanyi explains that, if Wisconsin’s legislature refuses to provide safe voting options, it simply isn’t a federal concern:
Many states have contingencies in place for emergencies. Wisconsin — while it had plenty of time to pass new guidelines — does not. That’s a Wisconsin problem, not a Supreme Court problem, not a “democracy” problem, and definitely not a federal problem.
If Wisconsinites don’t like their laws, if they’re disappointed in legislators, if they’re furious at the state’s high court, and they’re bothered by the governor’s ineptitude, there will be plenty of future elections to right those wrongs.
If Wisconsin voters want the chance to vote without risking death, they simply need to elect a new legislature that will provide those options. The Wisconsin legislature is itself gerrymandered so heavily that, even though Democrats won more votes in the 2018 statewide elections, Republicans controlled 63 of 99 seats. Wisconsin’s vote was a travesty because the minority-rule Republican legislature calculated that the travesty would benefit Republicans. Without the intervention of the Supreme Court or the federal government, legislatures in Wisconsin or elsewhere will continue blocking any measures to allow safe voting.
If the state most likely to determine the outcome of the election denies opposition-party voters the chance to safely vote, that is definitely a democracy problem. But Republicans will be able to justify it as necessary localism, allowing their state-level co-partisans to hold the whip hand, and declaring themselves helplessly bound by the principles of federalism.
Democrats have generally recognized that Trump has deep authoritarian ambitions. They have identified the tendency in his many Nixonian maneuvers to eliminate oversight and turn the justice system into a partisan weapon. But his most overt scheme to maintain power in the face of popular opposition is to use the pandemic to suppress the vote. This is the red-line moment when democracy might actually give way to authoritarianism.
The Democratic congressional leadership seems to believe it can continue dealing with the economic crisis as usual, handing over their leverage in small pieces and hopefully dealing with the election later. They would very much like to work to save the economy and leave the partisan spat of saving the election for later. What they seem not to realize is that, if they give Republicans the thing they most want now, there may not be a real election to save.