How not to hold an election during a pandemic


When Thomas Edison was asked about conducting thousands of experiments without results, he responded that he always got results: He knew “several thousand things that won’t work.” America’s states are, Louis Brandeis said, laboratories of democracy, and recently Wisconsin successfully demonstrated what does not work when holding elections during a pandemic.

After insisting for weeks that the statutory election schedule should be kept, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers tardily awoke to the problem of voting amid social distancing. Four days before the scheduled April 7 vote, he called the legislature into special session to pick a later date. The next day, the Republicans who control both houses swiftly adjourned the session, thereby conserving — they are conservatives — the status quo at a slight, they hope, cost in lives. (Voters and polling-place workers are disproportionately elderly.) Wisconsin Republicans, who know their candidates, clearly think they fare better when fewer people vote.

Wisconsin was an early incubator of progressivism, and Evers acted on the progressive assumption that executive power should be as large as any progressive executive thinks it should be, as long as the executive is progressive: He tried to rewrite Wisconsin’s election laws by fiat, but was rebuked by courts. This bad behavior on both sides was related to a bad idea: judicial elections. Composition of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court was at stake. On Election Day, in Milwaukee (population, 592,000), five of 180 planned polling places were open.

Long before COVID-19, every two years Americans in various states have endured hours-long waits in blocks-long lines at polling places. The possibility that COVID-19 will still require some social distancing in November has focused attention on voting by mail (VBM).

Responding to Democrats’ efforts to give states federal subsidies for mail voting, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California sternly says they should “stop worrying about politics.” Perhaps — let’s be fanciful — his reprimand was also intended for Donald Trump, who says he opposes VBM because, in addition to worries about fraud, it “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

Republicans have been more diligent in warning about substantial election fraud than they have been successful in documenting it. Other than that ascribed to an indicted North Carolina Republican operative, which caused a congressional election to be re-run. And other than Trump’s revelation that in 2016 he lost New Hampshire because a slew of buses — surely conspicuous; evidently unnoticed — brought in “thousands and thousands” of illegal voters “coming in from locations unknown.” (“But I knew where their location was.”)

In a 1996 special election, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., became the first U.S. senator elected in an all-mail vote. In a referendum two years later, 69 percent of Oregonians endorsed VBM for all elections. The second Oregon senator elected by VBM was Republican Gordon Smith. Social science provides little evidence of any substantial partisan advantage from VBM, which voters (although African Americans understandably like visiting polling places) favor for its convenience. Wyden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., propose legislation to mandate and subsidize state measures to facilitate VBM. Although subsidies in today’s emergency might be defensible, mandates unwisely — and unnecessarily — meddle with the laboratories.

New Hampshire’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has endorsed VBM. Elections in Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah are essentially entirely VBM, with ballots mailed to eligible voters. Twenty-eight other states, including California, Florida and Arizona, plus the District of Columbia, allow absentee voting without providing a reason. So, a majority of Americans have VBM, absent the convenience of automatically receiving ballots — although some states’ voters can put themselves on a list to receive ballots. This alarms those who fear the sort of substantial fraud that has not been verified after hundreds of millions of votes cast by mail.

Time was, Election Day provided a communitarian moment, with almost all voters visiting polling places. In 2016 however, 41.3 percent of votes were cast early or absentee; in 2018, 43.1 percent; in 2020, perhaps a majority. This year early voting will begin at least as early (because of COVID-19, states’ rules are in flux) as Sept. 18 in Minnesota. Scores of millions of votes might be cast before the presidential debates are over. However, given the usual caliber of such debates, this will not appreciably deprive early voters of pertinent information.

When Trump says VBM would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he concedes that VBM increases turnout and that Wisconsin Republicans are right about the party’s appeal: The larger the turnout, the less likely a Republican majority.

By Patricia Older

Leave a Reply