Health of Democracy Faces Daunting Test

“This moment carries both great opportunities and great peril for voting rights.”
Voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots in the presidential primary election in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020. Image source: AP Photo/Morry Gash FileVoters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots in the presidential primary election in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020. Image source: AP Photo/Morry Gash File
May 14, 2020
Interview by Ryan Mulcahy

This interview is part of a cross-disciplinary series examining the real and possible effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Liette Gidlow is a 2019–2020 Mellon-Schlesinger Fellow and an associate professor of history at Wayne State University, in Detroit. She is at work on her third book, “The 19th Amendment and the Politics of Race, 1920–1970.”

You are a historian of US politics and the struggles of African Americans and women of all races to vote. How does the current moment fit into the history of voting rights?

Many Americans cherish the belief that US history tells a story of ever-expanding democracy. In this telling, the right to vote belonged only to elite white men at the nation’s founding, but over time the 15th Amendment (1870), the 19th Amendment (1920), and the Voting Rights Act (1965) incorporated all citizens into the electorate. That narrative of progress, however, is deeply flawed, for American history is also full of examples in which masses of people lost the right to vote. After the Civil War, the vast majority of African American men in the South cast ballots; by the turn of the 20th century, almost all Southern black men had been disenfranchised through legal changes and outright violence.  For most of the 19th century, white men who were immigrants were eligible to vote if they had begun the process of naturalization; by the 1920s, every state had banned the practice of “alien suffrage.”

In our own time, even before the pandemic, ballot access for people of color and low-income persons has been significantly curtailed. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder disabled the main mechanism used by the federal government to protect voting rights. Since then, some Republican-party activists have worked to reshape the electorate in ways that disproportionately disenfranchise Democratic-leaning people of color and low-income persons. Today’s disfranchisement techniques include closing polling places (868 precincts in areas previously supervised by the Voting Rights Act have closed their polling places since 2013); reducing access to the voter IDs that many states require by permanently closing license bureaus (a third of the counties in Texas, most of which have large populations of people of color, now have no license bureau at all); and removing voters from the rolls in wholesale purges (since 2000, the number of purged voters in Indiana totals 485,235; in Georgia, 891,549; and in Ohio, nearly 2 million). 

Now, enter the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic puts in-person voting and public health in tension, and states are scrambling to adapt. The decisions they make, or fail to make, about when and how to hold elections under these circumstances will determine whether the pandemic causes voting rights to expand or contract. This moment carries both great opportunities and great peril for voting rights.

In Wisconsin’s recent election, poll workers and in-person voters risked exposure to the virus and absentee voters found that the Postal Service failed to deliver many ballots on time. How might the pandemic impact ballot access and voting rights in November’s general election? 

The pandemic has the potential to scale up disruptions to the electoral process. It has already widely affected election dates, voter registration, and balloting procedures. To date, seven states have delayed their presidential primaries, elections that determine the allocation of delegates even if the nomination is no longer in doubt. Eighteen states have changed election dates for other primaries, run-offs, municipal elections, and special elections. Twenty-five states have altered their procedures for registering or voting. Widespread disruption of election procedures introduces confusion and uncertainty into the process and can reduce confidence in the results. Voters need to trust the process if they are going to accept election outcomes as legitimate.

What are some potential effects of COVID-19 on voting rights and political representation over the long term, beyond this election cycle?

The pandemic could distort political representation for the next decade because it has impeded data collection in the 2020 federal census. The decennial census provides the information that most states use to draw district boundaries for US House seats and state, county, and local offices, boundaries that remain in place until the next census. Historically, the census undercounts people who rent their homes, African Americans, Latinx persons, Native Americans, and children, so district lines based upon a skewed count dilute the political power of the same groups. If the pandemic exacerbates the undercount of people of color and low-income persons and their families, it will exacerbate inequalities in political representation, too, and those inequalities will be locked into place until the next census.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently asked Congress to extend the deadline for delivering census results to state redistricting officials from March 2021 to July 2021.  How might such a delay affect political representation?

A delay may be unavoidable, but it threatens to further disrupt the all-important processes of reapportionment and redistricting. Reapportionment and redistricting are voting rights issues because they affect the weight of each person’s vote. The courts have held that districts need to represent equal numbers of residents; when undercounts are concentrated in particular population groups, the ballot of a voter in a district where those populations are concentrated effectively carries less weight than the ballot of a voter in a district without an undercount.

States rely on timely delivery of census results to meet their own deadlines for drawing new maps, and for many states, those deadlines are fixed in their state constitutions and thus nearly impossible to change. Courts have occasionally allowed states to use alternative population figures to draw boundaries, but those alternatives also tend to underrepresent people of color and low-income persons. In some states, political parties have tried to gain an advantage by calling for the use of data sets that exclude populations of noncitizens or incarcerated persons. Again, a delay may be necessary because data collection has been disrupted. But it introduces more opportunities to reduce representation for vulnerable populations.

Virginia just enacted a new law to expand ballot access. What steps can states take to boost turnout in November while protecting public safety?

Virginia’s law will make voting more convenient and less crowded. The commonwealth will now permit anyone to vote early for any reason and has extended both polling hours and number of days available for early voting. It also eliminated the requirement that voters show a photo ID. All these measures reduce exposure to the virus by shortening the time voters spend at the polls and spacing them out while they’re there. The law also revives a common practice from the 19th century: Virginia will once again recognize election day as a state holiday.

States can adopt other measures to improve turnout and safety. Polling places should be prepared to hand out masks and should reorganize space to maintain social distancing. States can reduce burdensome registration procedures by automatically registering everyone who pays taxes or receives benefits from the state. They can proactively send an absentee voting request to every registered voter and smooth out procedures for counting absentee ballots. In Michigan, a judge recently ruled that election boards must notify an absentee voter if there is a problem validating their ballot and also provide an opportunity for the voter to prove they are who they say they are, a provision that will ensure that more absentee ballots are counted and fewer are tossed out over a technicality.

Most important, states can ramp up programs to vote by mail. Washington and Colorado have conducted elections by mail for years, and their experience demonstrates that it can be done efficiently and securely—and that it boosts participation as well. Americans are ready for expanded vote-by-mail options: a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that two-thirds of voters would like the November election conducted by mail to protect public health. A clear majority are ready to make the change to vote-by-mail permanent.

The president and others say that a mail-in system comes with an elevated risk of fraud. Is there any evidence for this claim, and have other changes to how we vote met with similar opposition?

The experience of Oregon shows that well-designed vote-by-mail systems are secure. Oregonians have cast more than 50 million ballots by mail since 2000; in that time, only two persons there have been convicted of mail-ballot fraud. The problem of fraud is negligible, and dwarfed by the threat posed to voter turnout when people find they must jeopardize their health to cast ballots. Voting methods have evolved many times in the United States, and the techniques we trust today would have raised eyebrows in an earlier time. For the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, voters announced their choices when they cast their ballots by either literally voicing their vote or depositing a slip of paper in the ballot box designated for their party of choice. Public voting was an expression of masculinity; real men weren’t afraid to show what they stood for. Today, of course, we expect ballots to be secret, but we can protect ballot secrecy even if we vote by mail. 

Given the historical changes in voter eligibility, how can we permanently protect voting rights for all?

A constitutional amendment that affirmatively guarantees the right to vote to every citizen, what I call a #realright2vote, offers a permanent solution. A federally protected right to vote is the way to insulate voting rights from shifting prejudices and partisan manipulation.

Interview was edited for length and clarity.

Other articles in this series:

Esra Akcan on architecture

Fran Berman on digital contact tracing

Sara Bleich on food insecurity

Liz Chiarello on the opioid crisis

Lawrence F. Katz on the economy

Heather Paxson on home cooking

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