Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” has taken on a new meaning in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Patrick Henry’s famous call to arms encouraged Americans to engage in the revolutionary struggle at the risk of their lives. Yet in today’s situation—when more than 138,000 Americans have died from exposure to COVID-19 virus—the US needs a new non-violent call to arms in the struggle to retain one of its basic democratic liberties—the right to vote by all viable means that has inspired much of the world.
The right to vote is one of the essential liberties promised by the American Revolution—even though it took over 200 years of struggle for almost all Americans to obtain. The 15th, 19th and 26th amendments to the US Constitution guarantee that the voting rights of American citizens cannot be abridged on account of property restrictions, literacy tests, race, color, previous condition of servitude, sex, age for those above 18 years, or other factors. And state laws are beginning to change so felons can more easily vote as well.
Yet despite over 200 years of struggle to achieve the right to vote for almost all Americans, some states and localities want to maintain practices that could indirectly prevent large numbers of citizens from voting. The fact that voting does not take place on weekends or on holidays, or that not all companies permit their workers time off to vote, already represent factors that make it difficult for many to go to the polls.
The insistence that people vote in person at polling facilities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has become a new means to limit the potential number of voters. Yet there is absolutely no reason why US citizens should unnecessarily risk their health, if not their lives, to exercise their inalienable right to vote.
In Milwaukee, the political dispute over whether to delay the vote of the April 7 primary due to the danger of being exposed to COVID-19 has risked undermining the basic right to vote in that state, if not in others. The proposal to vote by mail ballot on a different date as a safer option was denied by the Republican-dominated Wisconsin State legislature.
The latter decision was then supported by both the Wisconsin State Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court. In a 5 to 4 ruling, the five US Supreme Court judges argued that states should not alter the election rules on the eve of an election regardless of the circumstances. In their dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (backed by Justices Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan) wrote: “A voter cannot deliver for postmarking a ballot she has not received. Yet some tens of thousands of voters who timely requested ballots are unlikely to receive them by April 7, the Court’s postmark deadline.” Roughly 10,000 people did not receive their ballots on time.
Despite losing in the courts, Milwaukee’s Democrats are fighting back by introducing legislation to mail absentee ballot applications to registered voters, along with a prepaid postage envelope to mail those applications back.
Yet here, an even more fundamental problem could represent yet another blow to the essential right to vote: the possible financial collapse of the US postal service. The US Postal Service (USPS) needs a whopping $75 billion to avoid bankruptcy. Yet the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act only provides USPS $10 billion in supplemental lending.
Much work will need to be done to make the USPS more efficient and innovative; yet many of its high costs are not due to competition with email and private delivery services as is generally believed. Rather, the high costs of the USPS generally result from government-mandated laws with respect to the USPS retiree health benefits fund, and laws against raising the prices of stamps and services.
The issue raised here is that the USPS is not only a vital means of communication in the US and the world, but it is also vital for the public health as it delivers test kits, medicines, face masks and other necessary supplies during the pandemic. And as private delivery services are unlikely to reach remote areas, and as millions of Americans and US military living overseas depend upon a functioning postal service to exercise their right to vote, the USPS is also vital to maintaining a vibrant democracy for Americans. The USPS must not rot. More Federal funding will be needed to help create an efficient USPS that is vital for the delivery of necessary supplies in the pandemic era and to secure access to ballots for all voters for the November 2020 elections.
The original CARES Act only appropriated $400 million for election assistance but at least five times that amount is needed to provide conditional grants to state and local election officials to pay rent, implement automatic voter registration, same-day registration, early voting, buy and maintain voting machines, and to deal with logistics such as printing deadlines and postage costs, as well as pay for personnel to supervise the polling places for those who want to vote in person in part in fear that a mailed ballot may not be counted or arrive in time.
During the recent primaries, both Wisconsin and Kentucky had to call in the National Guard to help staff polling places due to lack of personnel! But what happens if there are major protests at the time of the November presidential elections?
Close to three out of four Americans support universal access to mail ballots according to a Pew Opinion poll. In general, Democrats more strongly support absentee ballots, but close to half of Republicans support absentee mail ballots as well.
For his part, President Trump has strongly opposed voting by mail ballot—even if he himself has voted in Florida by mail as an out-of-state absentee voter. Trump has provided no clear reason (except for unsubstantiated and false claims of “voter fraud”) for not permitting ballots for anyone citizen who wants to vote from inside a state regardless of the reason. Contrary to the claims of Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr, it is very difficult to for anyone, including foreign powers, to counterfeit mail ballots. And it is dubious that Democrats necessarily benefit from mail ballots more than Republicans, as Trump has claimed. The armed forces and Americans abroad have been voting by mail ballots for decades, so there is no reason it can not become a common practice.
One possible rationale for Trump’s position: In the past, Republicans often benefited when the elderly voted by mail, but that no longer appears to be true in present circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. The real problem for Trump is not the mail-in ballot, but that Democratic candidate Joe Biden generally appeals more to the elderly than does Trump. This is in part due to the fact that the elderly feel more comfortable with Biden. Moreover, the elderly, the poor, those in need of health care, Hispanics and African Americans are disproportionately taking the brunt of Trump’s disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fatality rates, for example, for those over 80 years of age are five times the global average, while an estimated 66% of people aged 70 and over have at least one under-lying condition, placing them at increased risk of a severe impact from COVID-19. Many of the above groups will want to vote by mail for Biden as a protest against Trump (even if they do not fully support Biden)—while also wanting to stay out of public places.
Another danger for democratic participation is that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court had weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in the court case Shelby County v. Holder. Since that 2013 Supreme Court decision, local election boards and state governments have closed over 1,600 polling places. That is approximately 8% of total voting locations within jurisdictions affected by the Shelby decision. In general, less polling places make it more difficult for people to vote and may discourage people from going to vote. If the states that reduce the number of polling places do not also encourage voting by “no excuse” absentee ballot, then that can restrict the right to vote.
Although many states are beginning to change the rules before the November elections due to the pandemic, as many as 17 states have required voters to provide differing excuses to obtain an absentee ballot, while at least 28 states and the District of Columbia offer “no-excuse” absentee voting. Five states permit elections by mail-in ballots. Only a few states permit voters to apply for an absentee ballot in person before Election Day and then vote that same day. Excuses to obtain an absentee ballot differ per state. These excuses can include a voter’s absence from the locality on Election Day for specific reasons, illness or physical disability; or else a voter might be required to work during polling hours, religious observances, and incarceration (due to non-felony crimes for some states). Yet not all states will permit a citizen to obtain an absentee ballot for the above reasons.
New thinking is imperative. “No excuse” voting by mail or by email (with attached ballot) should be made as easy and practical as possible for all US citizens—whether the individual is voting in-state, out-of-state, or from overseas. Voting is a right and should be permitted in all viable ways. If the United States does not provide an effective means for its citizens to vote—in a situation in which average voter turn-out has been just over 60% of eligible voters for the presidential elections in 2008, 2012, and 2016—the US may soon find itself losing one of its inalienable liberties that has inspired peoples throughout the world.
The US must not lose the fundamental right to vote that took over 200 years to achieve. And it may take considerable protest to sustain those rights—particularly if President Trump continues to obstruct those rights in his bid to win the presidency in November 2020.
Yet it is also crucial that Americans and the world begin to critique both the form and structure in which that inalienable right to vote takes place. It is time to critique the “winner-take-all” system of voting and begin to implement a multi-option system of voting1 in which voters are better able to identify their preferences so as to establish a more inclusive system of democratic governance. It is also time to question2 overly cumbersome and costly structures of democratic governance—including the considerable problems that arise from the high costs of elections in general, two-term presidencies, lack of term limits for the House and the Senate, redundancies, ineffectiveness and waste inherent in the bicameral congressional system, two-party dominance, the electoral college, gerrymandering, among other issues. It is also time to begin to apply democratic principles to the workplace so that employees can more effectively participate in the decisions that directly impact their interests—by implementing new systems of co-management, profit sharing and voting rights that enhance our liberties.
The democratic process should be extended to both the workplace and to political governance in such a way as to boost civic participation in all social and political activities. Engaging in new systems of voting and structural transformations in governance that simplify political decision-making processes can help elect leadership that is more representative of the interests of a divergent population and permit greater degrees of power-sharing among disputing political parties and factions. The ultimate goal is the creation of a more equitable society that better distributes its wealth and resources in careful interaction with the natural environment—in ways that significantly boost employment in green industries.
The process to obtain these goals—involving protests, strikes and political action within present structures of governance—will evidently not be easy. The dangers of authoritarian backlash to the ongoing protests in the United States and in many countries throughout the world are real—as the planet enters a systemic global crisis and greater depression with high levels of unemployment and precarious under-employment that is most reminiscent of the geo-economics of the interwar period.
The danger is that throughout world history, leadership in times of systemic crisis have chosen repression, coup d’état and both civil and international war—instead of engaging in the difficult challenges that are posed by the implementation of far-reaching reforms in both domestic and international policies. Ironically, decisions to engage in repression and war—as war can falsely be seen as a means to boost employment and deflect popular attention away from bitter domestic disputes and from the gross mismanagement of finance and the economy—are much easier for demagogic leaderships to execute than are decisions that require determination and courage in order to more positively transform domestic and international policies…
As protests rage within the US and within many countries throughout the world, and as the US, Europe, Japan, India, Russia and China pursue a dangerous Butter Battle arms race despite the COVID-19 pandemic, let us hope that new national leaderships can eventually come to power that possesses the foresight and courage to implement radical domestic reforms while concurrently engaging in international diplomacy that can help set the foundations for global peace and sustainable development—while concurrently enhancing the liberties of people throughout the world…
1 Emerson P., Majority Voting as a Catalyst of Populism: Preferential Decision-making for an Inclusive Democracy, Springer 2019.
2 Gardner H., World War Trump: The Risks of America's New Nationalism, Prometheus 2018.