It's ok to be angry.
We’re facing a virus that has already taken 60,000 American lives. Inexcusable delays and denials at the highest level of our government made the pain and suffering of this crisis worse than it ever should have been. Our doctors don’t have masks. Our hospitals don’t have supplies. Our food pantries are overrun. Our small business assistance has run dry. And our president gets on TV every day without a word of comfort for a grieving nation.
We’re angry, too.
Luckily this country offers us the opportunity to express that anger constructively -- at the ballot box. We can make our fury known. We can fire elected officials unworthy of their power. We can choose who we trust to lead us through crisis.
Rarely has that vote felt more sacred. But rarely has it simultaneously felt more fragile. In a country that already struggles to guarantee access to the ballot box, COVID-19 threatens to erect unprecedented roadblocks to participation. Medical guidance is clear that we will be socially distancing for some time. Experts warn of a virus resurgence in the fall. With that in mind, how can we possibly proceed with the electoral status quo? How can we ask voters to risk their heath to show up in person and cast a vote?
We can't. Which is why Congress and state leaders across the country must move immediately to implement vote by mail for the remainder of the 2020 election cycle -- and beyond. Every single registered voter in the United States should be sent a ballot and given the option of casting their vote via mail. In-person polls can and should remain open, operating with the highest health and safety standards.
If we don’t act fast, we will jeopardize participation in what may be the most important election of our lifetime. People will stay home. Disproportionately, those people will be of color, who live in neighborhoods most likely to lose polling locations. They’ll be students, single parents, and low-wage workers, who can’t put their lives on hold to go vote. They’ll be seniors and medically-vulnerable patients, who would be literally risking their lives just to cast their ballots. So a privileged few will get to decide our country's trajectory while the people most impacted by this crisis are forced to forfeit their voice.
Last month, we got a sneak peek of what this looks like. A last-ditch effort by the governor of Wisconsin to delay the primary and keep voters safe was overruled by the Republican legislature. A lack of available poll workers forced the state to reduce the number of polling places -- down from 180 to five in the City of Milwaukee, home to 70 percent of the state’s African-American population. So voters endured hours of lines, in clear violation of social distancing guidelines, just to make it to the ballot box. And now, more than 50 people who either worked the polls or voted in those elections have tested positive for COVID-19.
Let us be very clear: No one’s vote should cost them their health.
Luckily, vote by mail offers us a solution. Long before the pandemic reached our shores, it was the gold standard for voter access and participation. States like Colorado, Utah, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii have implemented successful programs that have increased voter turnout. New York, New Hampshire, and Maryland are responding to COVID-19 by expanding vote by mail options. The Republican Secretary of State in Georgia has been fighting to send absentee ballots to every active voter in his state.
This should not be a partisan issue. Unfortunately, some are trying to make it one.
Congressional Republicans are arguing that it is simultaneously too late to talk about a nationwide vote-by-mail guarantee and too soon, given the acuity of this crisis. President Trump – a man who himself votes by mail – told us that his problem with the idea is that when more people vote, Democrats tend to win.
These disingenuous attacks on voting rights won’t end there because they never do. They will accuse us of politicizing a crisis. They’ll say that we’re trying to steal an election. They’ll use racist dog whistles about voter fraud. But when you brush the scare tactics aside, their objections are clear: Vote by mail is a threat to their power. Of course, our ballot box wasn’t built to protect one party’s power -- it was built to protect the people’s.
In the coming weeks, Congress will get to work on a fourth COVID-19 emergency funding package. It should include relief for small businesses, continuous direct cash payments to all Americans, deep investments in our health care providers, and much more. But it also must include an investment in the most basic building block of this entire system: our vote. We are urging leaders in both the House and Senate to include significant federal funding to support states as they implement vote by mail in the face of this crisis. And we are calling on every state to use those funds to send every single registered voter a ballot in all remaining primaries and the November general election.
Neither the health of our nation nor our democracy can survive this pandemic without it.
Kennedy represents the 4th District of Massachusetts. Pocan represents Wisconsin’s 2nd District and is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.