Biden needs to be a leader on voting rights

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With our democracy facing an unprecedented threat in the form of this once-in-a-century pandemic, Americans might expect presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to be trumpeting the importance of ensuring our elections are safe and secure. Yet, while voting rights activists scramble to reform election laws, the former vice president has largely remained silent. If Biden wants to lead the party, it’s time that he get off the sidelines and start using his bully pulpit to vehemently advocate for emergency-proofing measures.

To understand the democratic crisis we face, look no further than Wisconsin. This month, the state conducted a critical election, one that will define the state Supreme Court for years to come. Though many wanted it postponed—the governor even issued a last-minute executive order suspending in-person voting—the election proceeded after a shocking ruling by the state Supreme Court to reinstate the election, and then a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that failed to remedy the fact that roughly 10,000 voters had no way of receiving absentee ballots in time to cast them.

Unsurprisingly given the circumstances, the election was an unmitigated disaster. Fears about COVID-19 translated to a mass shortage of poll workers. The situation was so dire that the Wisconsin National Guard was deployed. Polling locations were shuttered. Milwaukee reduced its number of polling sites from 180 to 5. (That’s not a typo: The municipality home to the majority of the state’s African Americans reduced its number of polling locations by over 97 percent). This translated to extremely long lines that were made even longer by social distancing requirements. And it may lead to an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases.

At the same time, absentee ballot requests shattered record levels and election officials could barely handle the workload. Thousands of voters did not receive their ballots on time and were effectively disenfranchised. To make matters worse, the state’s voter ID law and witness requirements for absentee ballots caused significant confusion.

Some national Democrats have prioritized safeguarding our democracy and are taking this crisis seriously. When the GOP Senate version of the latest stimulus package was released, Democrats attacked it for allocating a mere $140 million for elections. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drafted her own bill that raised this sum to $4 billion, above even the $2 billion that the Brennan Center calculated is necessary to protect our democracy. Pelosi’s proposal also included mandates for states to provide online voter registration, no-excuse absentee balloting, early voting, and same-day voter registration. The final deal only included $400 million and did not enact mandates—raising questions about whether Democrats truly pushed hard enough—but party leaders are pledging to keep fighting.

Biden, on the other hand, has had a dubious relationship with the voting rights movement. Unlike the vast majority of his 2020 rivals, Biden never released a comprehensive voting rights plan—or any stand-alone voting rights plan, for that matter. And though he said voter protection would be a “foundation” of his presidency, apart from a few mentions on his website (namely in his agendas for black and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities) and on the trail, this critical issue has been largely absent from his campaign.

Even as our elections started facing this unprecedented threat, the former vice president has only slightly changed tactics. With the exception of restoring the Voting Rights Act and supporting automatic and same-day voter registration, there is little specificity regarding voting rights on his website. Neither is there a mention of vote-by-mail, the baseline reform for a democracy disrupted by a pandemic. (He did, at least, recently indicate support for expanding vote-by-mail and early voting in a press release and critically said he would prioritize reforms such as those in H.R. 1—a major shift in his rhetoric.) Worse still, Biden has hedged on the question of whether voting in-person under current conditions is safe. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Just ask the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin state house, who, last week, claimed it was “incredibly safe” to go out and vote—while wearing full-on protective gear. For most people watching, his attire spoke far louder than his words.

The importance of federal legislation cannot be overstated. The patchwork of state laws governing elections is proving disastrous, and though many states have taken action to respond to this crisis, many have not. Only federal standards with adequate funding can ensure our democracy will be functional in the months ahead. Biden’s failure to fully and consistently advocate for bold federal reform is therefore profoundly troubling.

Holding a fair, accessible, and secure November election will take all hands on deck. Unfortunately, instead of working in good faith to ensure that no American has to choose between their health and the franchise, many GOP officials—including President Trump—have publicly admitted that they oppose critical reforms such as vote-by-mail because it would hurt their re-election chances.

Unprecedented pressure is now needed to win concessions from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and state lawmakers. If the Democrat leading the ticket can’t even bother to truly take up the fight, our democracy is in an even more perilous state than even cynics contend.

It’s not too late for Biden to become a champion. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recently released a stellar reform plan, endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Biden should adopt it, immediately. The majority of Americans would stand with him, too. According to Global Strategy Group, 89 percent of Americans want every voter to have the option to vote by mail and 93 percent want more options for early voting. A Reuters/Ipsos poll likewise found support for vote-by-mail at 72 percent. And polling by Data For Progress shows that voters support “automatically registering and enrolling all eligible voters in optional vote-by-mail” by a 30-point margin.

American history is defined by the struggle over the franchise. The current crisis is a reminder that our era is no different. It still remains to be seen which politicians will rise to the challenge.

Adam Eichen is an author and campaigns manager at EqualCitizens.US

Tags Bernie Sanders Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Vote by Mail

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