How in-person voting can save America
Despite the risk associated with the pandemic, in-person voting is our best way to save both democracy and America.
It is understandable that people want to vote by mail, particularly while we still lack a national strategy for dealing with COVID-19. Amid a raging pandemic, maintaining social distancing is the socially responsible thing to do to. Urging mail-in voting has therefore been at the core of the Democrats’ messaging for months.
For any other election, this would be sage advice. But there is an obvious problem with this scenario: Because many states count absentee and mailed-in ballots only after election night, and because these votes tend to skew heavily Democratic, President Trump has suggested that he may claim victory on the basis of the votes cast on Election Day, which would effectively disenfranchise millions of Americans.
For healthy, low-risk voters, voting in-person and early is a direct way to thwart his outrageous strategy. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has held a consistent lead in all the polls for the last four months, hovering between +6 and +12 nationally. He has narrower but also steady leads in several important swing states, including Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and is running within the margin of error in states usually written-off by Democrats, such as Arizona, Georgia and Texas. If these numbers hold up, Biden should cruise to victory.
But this faith in the polls has one profound flaw: It assumes that everyone who wants to vote will be able to do so, and that every vote will be counted.
After months of falsely claiming that voting by mail risks fraud and “rigged” elections, while simultaneously sabotaging the functionality of the post office, Trump is now brazenly asserting that his reelection strategy is to “get rid of the ballots.” While the right has a long and well-documented history of engaging in voter suppression and disfranchisement, never before has a candidate frankly touted fraud as an actual strategy.
A Biden win depends on making sure that all the votes are counted. From voter identification laws to polling place closures to striking “inactive” voters from rolls, the GOP is increasingly committed to suffrage-theft, especially from young voters and voters of color. Given the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013, several of the most populous states in the South – states that have been on the verge of going blue – are the most likely to experience severe disfranchisement and voter suppression.
Furthermore, voting-by-mail amid the COVID-19 pandemic has opened both partisan and racial disparities regarding preferred voting methods. While Democrats overwhelmingly have said they plan to vote by mail, most Republicans plan to vote in person. This discrepancy is precisely what led to Trump’s “get rid of the ballots” strategy and his intention to claim victory on the night of November 3, despite the rules in many states that permit ballots to be counted only after election night. Trump knows that the votes cast on Election Day could skew Republican.
In states that only count absentee ballots after Election Day, such disparities mean that Trump is likely to be winning by a huge margin on election night, only to see his margins recede or disappear as the mail-in ballots are counted over the next few days or even weeks — a phenomenon which Ohio State law professor Ned Foley has dubbed “the big blue shift.” And the longer the blue shift goes on, the more time Trump and his allies in conservative media will have to build up a false narrative of illegitimate voting.
Blocking the counting of mail-in ballots will effectively be the GOP’s last, desperate attempt to disenfranchise voters who choose a perfectly legal and very secure voting method, but who happen to skew Democratic. Even Republicans who have publicly disavowed Trump’s “get rid of the ballots” statement seem to share his broader ballot-nullification strategy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said that he would make sure the results of “the November 3rd Election” would be respected — perhaps a tacit nod to the nullification of votes counted after election night.
Yet the GOP still seems concerned that these tactics may not be enough to ensure Trump’s victory — and they could be right. Most states permit early in-person voting at a limited number of polling stations. Unlike mailed-in ballots, these early votes will be counted on election night, making it much more difficult for Trump to claim immediate victory.
Rather than helpless handwringing over whether Trump will concede, Americans need an actual plan, a strategy to ensure that their votes will count. The best way to accomplish this momentous task? Mask up, be safe and vote in-person, preferably early. It just may be the key to preserving democracy in America.
Nils Gilman is vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute and the cofounder of the Transition Integrity Project. Keri Leigh Merritt is the author of the award-winning “Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South.” She is currently working on a new documentary on the American Civil War.
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