In late March, it became evident in the states holding Democratic primaries and other elections in April that, because of the coronavirus, it could be irresponsible to have voters cast ballots in person. Some states announced that they would postpone their elections, while Ohio (which had already done so) joined Alaska and Wyoming in moving to vote almost entirely by mail. Tony Evers, the Democratic governor of Wisconsin, sought to expand the use of mail-in ballots, but Republicans controlling the state legislature blocked him, arguing that the plan was unworkable, might foster fraud, and was, in any event, unnecessary. “You are incredibly safe to go out,” the Assembly speaker, Robin Vos, assured the electorate.
The standoff inspired lawsuits, and, on April 6th, the day before the vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5–4, not to allow Wisconsin voters extra time to mail their ballots. (All the conservative Justices opposed giving extra time; all the liberal Justices supported it.) Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, in a dissent, that the majority’s belief that an election staged amid a pandemic would not be much different from an ordinary one “boggles the mind.” The images from Election Day are indelible: Vos turned up as a volunteer poll worker, swathed in a protective gown, mask, and gloves, as citizens in homemade masks or with no protection at all lined up for blocks in some precincts, separated by the requisite two yards. The election’s implementation was a fiasco. Milwaukee had planned to operate a hundred and eighty polling places but opened only five, owing to a dearth of volunteers, and more than ten thousand mail-in ballots requested by voters across the state never reached them, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Last week, the city’s health commissioner announced that seven people had apparently contracted the coronavirus while participating in the vote.
The 2020 election is the first Presidential campaign in U.S. history to be upended by a deadly virus, and this comes on top of the burdens created by the divisive, reckless candidacy of Donald Trump. There are days when Trump and his backers seem to welcome the pandemic’s strains on our democratic institutions. On April 17th, the President surpassed himself in cynical opportunism and self-contradiction when he tweeted out support for incipient protests against stay-at-home orders issued by Democratic governors—orders that aligned with the policy of the Trump Administration and the advice of its public-health experts. J. B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, said that Trump, by urging his Twitter following to “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia, and by persisting with such incitement, has been “fomenting some violence.” The right-wing Michigan Freedom Fund, supported in part by the family of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Secretary, promoted a protest in Lansing that attracted several thousand people, including some toting assault-style rifles. Trump’s political aims seem apparent: with the economy in free fall, and his approval numbers soft, he is rousing his loyalists, particularly in swing states, counting on them—and a hoped-for economic rebound—to deliver a victory come November.
Americans love a good revolt, and the protests stoked by conservative networks and incendiary talk-radio hosts, such as Alex Jones, of Infowars, may appeal to some peaceable citizens fed up with confinement or chafing at the encroachments on civil liberties required by the quasi-quarantines. But, if Trump continues to run a populist campaign premised on jump-starting the economy in defiance of the advice of scientists and doctors, he will be fighting uphill—seven out of ten Americans say that it is more important to stay home to thwart the coronavirus than it is to return to work. Last week, Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, took Trump’s cue and announced a plan to reopen hair salons, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, movie theatres, and restaurants, even though public-health specialists believe that such a move would be premature, because COVID-19 cases in Georgia haven’t declined sufficiently. When experts denounced Kemp’s plan, Trump flummoxed Republicans by joining them. Still, support for opening businesses quickly remains greater among Republicans than among Democrats or independents, and there is a danger that, in response, Republican governors and mayors may jeopardize the nation’s recovery by lifting restrictions too soon. The Administration has also failed abjectly to provide enough tests to map the spread of the virus and the rates of recovery among those infected, depriving all governors and mayors of a vital means to manage risk while trying to revive jobs and businesses.
Unable to stage his trademark rallies, Trump has been forced to relocate his reëlection campaign to the White House press room, where, in the absence of fervent fans, his mixtape of sober reflections, false boasts, rants against reporters, and irresponsible touts of miracle cures—on Thursday, he speculated about injecting disinfectant—doesn’t play so well. The President’s inconsistency and unreliability may at last be catching up with him: only a quarter of Americans, and just half of Republicans, say that they trust what he says about the pandemic. But polls also indicate that he remains ahead or competitive in the states he won in 2016. The Democratic Party leadership has unified swiftly around Joe Biden, and yet on many days he barely surfaces in the news cycle, while Trump vacuums up attention.
Right now, voters are the Democratic Party’s greatest asset; they have been turning out in droves and knocking off Republican incumbents with impressive regularity since 2018, even when their candidates are uninspiring. In Wisconsin, on April 7th, Democrats chose Biden over Bernie Sanders, as had been expected. But the voters stunned forecasters by electing a liberal justice to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, defeating an incumbent whom Trump had endorsed and narrowing the court’s conservative majority to one. The justices are scheduled to decide before November whether to sanction a Republican-backed plan to purge two hundred thousand people from Wisconsin’s voter rolls because they failed to respond to a letter inquiring about their addresses. (Trump won the state in 2016 by fewer than twenty-three thousand votes.) The proposed purge is part of a long-standing effort by conservative lawyers and activists to establish voting restrictions that disproportionately hurt Democrats. Trump recently called mail-in voting “a terrible thing.” Perhaps the pandemic will have receded by November, but, if it hasn’t, there is little reason to think that the President or his allies will surrender their positions. If homebound, frustrated Americans want a cause to rally around, they might consider demanding the right to vote without having to risk their lives. ♦