Across this nation, courageous people — from health-care workers to grocery-store employees — are facing danger every day to meet the challenges of this horrible pandemic. Nevertheless, Wisconsin’s Republicans — with the backing of President Donald Trump — placed the state’s citizens at risk by refusing to permit a modest, one-week extension for mail-in ballots that would have allowed voters to exercise their right to vote without exposing themselves and their families to an unprecedented pandemic.
And then a five-member majority of the Supreme Court, “lacking situational awareness,” in the words of one prominent Court watcher, sided with the Republican National Committee and refused to let stand a District Court order that would have granted the extension. As Justice Ginsburg sternly dissented: “The Court’s suggestion that the current situation is not ‘substantially different’ from ‘an ordinary election’ boggles the mind.“ Justice Ginsburg went on to say: “Either they [voters] will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety. Or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own.”
Viruses aren’t evil. Technically, they aren’t even alive. The coronavirus attacks and kills with no malice or motivation beyond a crude imperative to replicate. I cannot say the same for the attacks on our democracy that, shockingly, have only intensified during this pandemic and worked to silence communities that are disproportionately impacted by dirty water and air.
This country has a long and shameful history of disenfranchising voters — most notably African Americans. It’s always been wrong. But forcing Americans to choose between exercising their right to vote and protecting themselves from a potentially fatal disease goes beyond wrong — it’s unconscionable. And in a bitter irony, African Americans, who have been dying disproportionately during the pandemic, were also among those most affected by closed and overcrowded polling places in Wisconsin cities.
This happened because Republicans — and Donald Trump in particular — know that voter suppression is their surest path to victory. So even though the Centers for Disease Control lists vote-by-mail as the best way to prevent crowding at polling sites, Republicans reflexively oppose it — even during a pandemic and even though they know it means people will die. Trump can’t even bother to hide that it’s because he thinks it means he’ll lose.
“Voter fraud,” of course, exists primarily in Trump’s own warped mind. He even formed a special commission to investigate it in 2016 but shut it down two years later after it produced no evidence.
Will it be safe to hold a normal election by November? I certainly hope so. But it’s also possible we’ll be dealing with a resurgence of COVID-19 infections. No one knows. Here’s what we do know: We cannot risk repeating the disaster in Wisconsin on a national scale — not when so much is at stake for our environment and our democracy.
If we want fair and democratic elections in November, we need to act now. The Sierra Club is demanding that as part of its COVID-19 response, Congress provide states and territories with $4 billion to expand vote-by-mail options, extend in-person early voting, and make polling places as safe and accessible as possible. Online and same-day voter registration must also be expanded to all states and to all voters.
The coronavirus has raised the stakes of these attacks on our democracy. Millions of Americans could literally be forced to risk their lives if they want to cast a ballot. Donald Trump, however, won’t be one of them. He applied for his mail-in ballot last March.