By DPVA Chair Susan Swecker, Senator Creigh Deeds, and Delegate Joe Lindsey
April 22, 2020
The novel coronavirus pandemic is disrupting nearly every aspect of American life. Almost the entire country is hunkered down in their homes, and basic tasks such as a grocery run are fraught with health risks. To make things worse, President Trump has spent the past month berating state leaders who ask for help, denying responsibility for the crisis he made worse and failing to take decisive action to save lives. And while Democrats and Republicans have come together to pass important relief packages through Congress, there’s one part of this crisis that our leaders have yet to seriously address: how more than a hundred million people in the country are going to vote safely later this year.
Since states began recommending social distancing, elections across the country have been disrupted. States who didn’t delay their presidential primary elections saw long lines and closed polling locations that at best confused voters and at worst put them at risk. The recent election in Wisconsin was the most egregious example of what shouldn’t be happening in a pandemic.
As Democrats at the national level propose aid to state election administrators to help them make voting safe and reliable this year, they should look to the laws Virginia recently enacted to expand the right to vote as a guide.
Here in Virginia, Democrats passed a series of bills before the pandemic hit that will expand absentee voting and eliminate roadblocks that made voting difficult even under normal circumstances. This includes a repeal of the photo-identification law, something more than a dozen states — including many in the South — still have. Virginia also recently enacted automatic voter registration, made Election Day a state holiday and extended poll hours by an hour, which will help reduce crowds.
But plans to make voting easier have faced almost universal opposition from Republicans. GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel recently decried vote by mail as a “ruse” that would “undermine democracy,” a flimsy critique, seeing as several states (including Republican-controlled Utah) already have vote-by-mail programs in place and the president himself votes by mail. Trump confessed the real reason he opposed voting by mail in an interview with Fox News. Complaining about Democrats’ proposed funding boost to state election systems, 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.” In a tweet he urged Republicans to “fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting” because it “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
Republicans have made it painfully clear that their concern is neither protecting Americans’ fundamental right to vote nor looking out for our health and safety. Instead they’d rather limit the amount of people who vote. Republicans think low turnout will give them an advantage. And they need that advantage because the policies they campaign on are broadly unpopular, not just in Virginia but across the country. That’s why they opposed bills to make voting easier for years in the General Assembly, support a president who spews lies about voter fraud and spent $5 million in taxpayer money defending racially gerrymandered districts that kept them in power in Virginia.
This isn’t a normal election. Americans, especially older voters, need every option available to them to vote safely this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends voting by mail as a top way to reduce crowds at the polls. By opposing plans to make voting easier and more accessible, Republicans aren’t just admitting that their strategy is reliant on limiting democratic participation, they’re also forcing people to choose between their health and their right to vote.
Nobody should have to make that choice. There’s still time to put in place plans at the national and state level to make sure our elections are safe, secure and reliable for everyone to participate in. In their next coronavirus aid package, Congress should include money for election infrastructure so officials can put in place programs such as vote by mail. They should also fully fund the Postal Service to make sure ballots are delivered and pass other requirements such as an end to photo-ID laws to stop needless roadblocks that keep people — particularly people of color and those with low incomes — from voting. In 2018, Virginia was ranked as the second-hardest state in the country to vote in. While the laws we recently passed will change that, other pivotal states such as Michigan, Texas and Florida are still ranked toward the bottom and have been hit hard by this pandemic.
Cracks in our financial, public health and manufacturing systems have been made painfully clear over the past two months. If we don’t act now, our elections and voting systems will be next. It’s time for all of us to come together to make sure everyone can vote safely this year.