Commentary, COVID-19, Trump Administration

Virus-era voting: The stakes couldn’t be higher

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[Editor’s note: This article was written before the chaotic April 7 Wisconsin primary, in which many voters were forced to put their health at risk in order to cast in-person ballots, and before President Trump urged his fellow Republicans to resist any further move toward mail-in or absentee voting because it would hurt their election chances in the fall.]

In keeping with the familiar rhythms of American politics, this is a year when many of our elected leaders, including the president, and their would-be successors will stand for inspection before the voters. They will offer themselves for judgment on their performance, for appraisal of their likely success going forward, for assessment of character and qualities of leadership.

There must be this caveat, however: It is only through elections that are fully accessible, fair and accurate that we as citizens can properly render our findings.

Of course the road toward elections meeting that high standard has been full of twists and potholes. But then along came the coronavirus plague of 2020, posing degrees of uncertainty and confusion for the ongoing election cycle that could shake our democracy to the core. If we let it.

The overriding challenge now facing not only our governments at all levels but also our entire society is to save as many lives as possible while also protecting people from the ravages of economic shutdowns that are needed to keep the virus from spreading.

But there also must be a concerted effort to think through how the pandemic could, and likely will, disrupt the usual ways we go about preparing for and conducting elections next fall – including the voting that’s supposed to determine whether President Trump will serve a second term.

That includes the process of candidate selection – already thrown off-stride in the presidential race as Democratic front-runner Joe Biden has had to put his campaign in neutral just as he appeared poised to claim the role of presumptive nominee.

Fortunately in North Carolina, where primary elections were held on March 3, candidates from both parties have been chosen for races up and down the ballot. (A delayed runoff for the Republican nomination in the 11th Congressional District is scheduled for June 23.) But several other states where primaries have yet to be held now must navigate stay-at-home orders, social distancing and other obstacles to business as usual.

At least those efforts could amount to trial runs for the kinds of steps that could well be needed in order to hold credible elections in November – when the stakes will indeed be huge.

Systems under stress

The N.C. Council of Churches long has emphasized the importance of robust voter participation in fairly and honestly conducted elections as a top social justice priority. If elected leaders are to be fully accountable, they must answer to the broadest possible cross-section of the voting public, including folks who otherwise have been pushed to the margins of influence and advantage.

That premise stands as securely as ever during a year when the vulnerable among us – those thrown out of work amid economic turmoil, those in crowded, substandard housing, those facing unmanageable expenses for health care – must cope with challenges on a crushing scale.

But just as significant is that for the first time in living memory, what will be tested in the months to come is our system’s capacity to reflect the views of enough eligible voters to bestow the consent of the governed that lies at the heart of democracy and, when called for, that clears the way for orderly transfers of power.

Over recent elections our methods have evolved. Voters used to be required to appear in person on the second Tuesday in November unless they had a good excuse why they couldn’t, in which case they could vote absentee. Now absentee voting requires no excuse and in-person voting is spread out over a matter of days. But even this degree of flexibility could prove inadequate under the conditions we might face this fall.

Even if the COVID-19 pandemic reaches its first hideous peak within the next month or so, common-sense precautions about avoiding crowds and potential sources of infection are likely to linger. That alone could throw a wrench into a process that by all signs has been on track to draw heavy turnouts.

What if there’s a resurgence of the virus come cooler weather, as some experts warn could occur? What if we must revert to stay-at-home mode? Then we’d have to be able to handle voting done remotely – building on the current absentee process or switching wholesale to the kind of mail-in ballots that a few states already use.

Either way, the amount of preparation required to pull it off would be formidable and there would be large extra costs. It’s daunting to think of trying to engineer such sweeping changes virtually on the fly. But state by state, county by county, we’d have to get it right.

The public would have to be assured that all prospective voters were given an equal chance to have their say (a challenge even under normal conditions) and that ballots were counted accurately. Otherwise we could end up with results giving off an odor of illegitimacy that – not to put too fine a point on it – could be as lethal to public support for our systems of government as COVID-19 is for its unluckiest victims.

Politics in play?

It’s stating the obvious to say that when election procedures are changed, there can be a political dimension. The usual dynamic when such changes are contemplated boils down to who benefits – which parties, which candidates. And hence, which agendas.

The North Carolina trend in recent years has seen Republicans who control the General Assembly try to hold down the numbers of votes cast by segments of the electorate more inclined to favor Democrats. Voting rights advocates have blunted those attempts via legal challenges – notably, by underscoring the link between partisan gamesmanship and unconstitutional racial discrimination. But the push and pull continues.

Imagine that push and pull magnified in the context of a public health crisis requiring customary voting processes to be reworked practically from scratch. Wise and civic-minded leaders, in our state and elsewhere, cannot allow political opportunism to undermine trust that election outcomes do indeed reflect the people’s will.

Just like the combination of efforts – national, state and local – needed if the pandemic is to be tamped down before it becomes catastrophic, adjustments to our election machinery also must be coordinated among the different levels of government. But national leadership, just as in the health-care arena, is essential. For example, states could be encouraged to switch to a vote-by-mail model and reimbursed for the costs in personnel, equipment and materials.

Let’s hope the Trump administration – finally seeming to have awakened to the danger — learns from its mistakes in having failed to get a timely jump on the virus and takes the threat to orderly elections seriously. That’s despite the fact that letting the elections devolve into a fiasco might help shield the president from his share of the blame for months of pandemic misery.

North Carolina’s leaders can do their part to keep elections on track with clear, credible results by making contingency plans soon and by allocating the necessary money. Surely it will make sense to anticipate an upsurge in absentee voting. That will mean additional outlays for materials, staff and training.

As part of their justice advocacy work, many churches already include outreach to encourage voter registration and turnout. Those efforts will become even more significant during a time when familiar election patterns and habits are likely to be disrupted. And as the authorities consider how the upcoming elections should be conducted, church-goers can and should help spread the message: Full participation in the voting to take place in only seven months is too important to be left to the whims of happenstance and the vagaries of the virus.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.

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