This article is a student op-ed piece from Professor Kim Wehle’s spring 2020 course “Advanced Constitutional Law: Democracy at Risk.” The Legislation and Policy Brief allowed the students to publish their writing on the blog if they wished. The blog pieces were edited by the Legislation and Policy Brief for grammatical and technical errors only, and they appear as they were written by the authors in April of 2020.
Student Author: Effie A. Acevedo Guasp
Months ago, when there was no sight of the coronavirus, much less of a world pandemic, pundits were already voicing that the 2020 election is the most important in modern times. Fast forward to April and it seems there is no better description of the significance of what will happen on November 3.
COVID-19 has shed light on the importance of electing competent, mature, serious officials; people who are able to listen to the experts, take matters seriously, and make rational and sound choices in difficult times; people that won’t underestimate threats, disregard advice, or ignore cries for help; and that will work tirelessly for the safety and health of the country. It has also shed light on the need for individuals to raise their voices during a crisis, stay informed, and demand concrete action from their elected officials. The pandemic has brought many challenges and dramatic changes to everyday life. However, these should not keep people from engaging in new and creative forms of social action and it should definitely not keep them away from the polls.
On Election Day, the presidency, 11 governorships, 35 Senate seats, and all 435 seats in the House will be up for grabs. The magnitude of this election -not only for the US but also for the rest of the world- cannot be underestimated. The election of Donald Trump inspired and legitimized other polarizing, power grabbing, science denying figures in other parts of the world (as in the UK, Brazil, and Hungary). The pandemic has evidenced the dangers of having such individuals in power, while casting light on other US leaders that have stood up to the challenge of containing the virus.
In addition to forcing a much-needed discussion about health care, COVID-19 should be taken as a wake-up call for voters. However, a dark cloud looms over the next election. Will people be able to move freely and safely by November? Will it be safe to go to a polling place? Will the voters be able to vote early by mail without an excuse? Will the states be ready to administer elections in a safe, organized, and efficient manner? Will they have enough resources?
If we have learned anything from the coronavirus, it is that there are still many unknowns. The virus has attacked the young and the old, the healthy and the compromised; it is asymptomatic for some and deadly for others; and it may be present for long periods of time. Thus, hoping things will be back to normal in November is not an option.
Some states are moving in the right direction extending the periods for early voting and allowing absentee voting without an excuse. Some have taken measures for their primary elections, like Ohio that moved to all-mail voting. Others, like Virginia, are already planning for the national election, establishing Election Day as a national holiday, and extending early voting to 45 days before the election. However, other proposals directed at expanding voting accessibility have received fierce oppositions from Republicans.
To avoid the debacle that occurred in Wisconsin when hundreds of thousands stood in line for hours to vote, the federal government and the states need to start preparing for an election without large congregations of in-person voting. The date of the election cannot be changed easily. Federal law establishes Presidential, House and Senate elections must be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This could only be changed by congressional action with the ultimate approval of the President. Similarly, when it comes to the election of Senators and Representatives, section 4 of Article I of the Constitution states that state legislatures shall prescribe the “times, places, and manner” for such, but Congress may “at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations”. Some of the measures available are extending registration deadlines, including same day and online registration, and expanding early voting and absentee voting. This last option requires additional measures like sending ballots in time, providing prepaid stamps, and electronic verification of delivery. These, in turn, require funding as states have been hit hard by the steep reduction in tax revenues and the need to direct resources to deal with the health crisis.
The national government, with the capacity to bolster state response, only earmarked $400 million, trivial when compared to the $2 billion the Brennan Center recommended and the $4 billion the Democrats asked for the elections. While Democrats in Congress introduced the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 to provide states the necessary resources to implement these measures, it is unlikely to get the support needed from Republicans. The recently published results of a Pew Research Center poll should serve as a wakeup call for Republicans. The results revealed that 52% of Americans (Democrats and Republicans) favor conducting all elections by mail. This represents an 18% increase in support since 2018. The poll also found that 70% favor allowing any voter to vote by mail if they want to, while 69% favor automatically registering all eligible citizens to vote.
With this scenario, what can voters do? How can they ensure their support for alternative methods of voting is not ignored? How -in these difficult and unique times- can they compel elected officials to advance the interests and needs of the People and protect their right to vote? Voters must turn their support for ideas into action.
Lockdowns and social distancing do not have to be obstacles for political action and mobilization. Even from the comfort of the bed or the couch, people can turn to online communication to raise their voices and demand action from their elected leaders. People can call their senators and representatives, email them, tweet them, record videos, reach out to others on social media and demand that measures are taken to guarantee the right to vote without putting lives in danger.
More importantly, from the comfort of their homes, people can educate, raise awareness, and promote action. A great example of this is the project “When We All Vote”, co-chaired by former first lady Michelle Obama. This campaign, launched in 2018, has recently turned its focus on promoting measures that will allow safe voting in these difficult times. The campaign -making its way through social media outlets- supports proposals for mail-in voting, early voting, and online registration. It provides information on how to request mail-in voting in the different states and engages people by asking them to take a pledge to fight for safe and fair elections. The campaign is simple, creative, and accessible, and is just one of the many ways individuals can get involved.
In addition to paving the way for online mobilization, staying at home can serve as a unique opportunity for people to get educated on their options coming November. It is a good time to learn about the candidates for the different Senate and House seats as well as the Presidency. People should take the chance to research the candidates’ track record and proposals and think about the qualities their elected officials must have to lead the country efficiently in this pandemic and after it is over. Getting informed is also a way of staying politically active and strengthening Democracy.
With everything that has happened in the previous months, it feels like the President was impeached ages ago. Today, millions of people are in unprecedented lockdowns in the US and around the world. At the same time, hospitals in the richest nation in the world are in dire need of protective equipment and ventilators, forcing health care workers to make life or death decisions based on resources. Among the uncertainty surrounding the yet-to-be-seen consequences of this crisis, safeguarding the right to vote should be a priority, for government officials and individuals alike. Individuals should take this historic opportunity to get informed, educate fellow voters, and mobilize through social media platforms to advance their interests. The restraints on movement and socialization must not suppress the will of the People. The notion of Democracy is based on the ability of the People to express their political will. It is the duty of the Government to defend and protect the People from disenfranchisement and it is the right of the People to engage in political and social action to vindicate their rights and hold politicians accountable.