For the last several weeks, I’ve been debating whether President Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been mendacious or simply foolish. But why can’t it be both? Having learned nothing from his disastrous run-up to America’s pandemic meltdown, he now proposes to do the same thing to the presidential election.
President Trump is dead set against doing anything to encourage voting by mail in November. “I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting,” he said last month. “I think people should vote with ID, voter ID. I think voter ID is very important, and the reason they don’t want voter ID is because they intend to cheat. . . . It shouldn’t be mail-in voting. It should be you go to a booth and you proudly display yourself. You don’t send it in the mail where people can pick up—all sorts of bad things can happen . . . by the time it gets in and is tabulated.”
This is, of course, complete nonsense. Voting by mail is already common. In five states—Washington, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Hawaii—all voting is now by mail. But even in many states where in-person voting is the default, anyone who wants to vote by mail can do so. In California about two-thirds of all votes are cast that way. Nor is voting by mail controversial. In a recent poll, 72 percent of Americans considered conducting the November election by mail a good idea.
Of course, Trump’s concern that “bad things can happen” with vote-by-mail is just a fig leaf for political calculation. Trump is against vote-by-mail because he believes he has a better chance of winning a low-turnout train wreck of an election like the recent Wisconsin primary than he does in a well-managed, high turnout election. Trump himself has said as much.
It’s tempting to demand that Republicans and Democrats in Congress put their differences aside and fix the problem. But I think we all know how that movie ends. Worse, there isn’t time as we’re already a month behind schedule. Plans drawn up by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission suggest that states wanting to set up a vote-by-mail system should have started the process at the beginning of April.
But we can’t do nothing. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our democracy is potentially at stake. Forcing people to stand in line to vote in the midst of a deadly pandemic is just as insane and, frankly, evil as forcing health care workers to treat coronavirus victims without proper masks.
Luckily, we don’t have to rely on President Trump’s goodwill. Getting the remaining states geared up for voting by mail will cost only about a billion dollars—a relative pittance and 0.045 percent of what we have already spent on the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. Besides the five states that conduct all elections by mail, 28 allow anyone to request an absentee ballot for any reason. Setting up a vote-by-mail system in these states will be comparatively easy. But 17 states still require what they consider an acceptable excuse before issuing a voter an absentee ballot. It is these states that require the bulk of the funding—and the pressure.
That pressure doesn’t have to rely on lobbying legislatures and the subsequent endless partisan food fights. Any states that resist setting up vote-by-mail systems can be sued in state court and forced to do so. Guaranteeing free and fair elections is what courts do.
As one of the developers of Certified Voter, I am all too familiar with the need for private actors to step up when the government fails to do its job. And this is where Mike Bloomberg or some other public-spirited billionaire comes in. For less than the $1.2 billion dollars he spent on his presidential run, the mayor could finance an organized campaign to force every state to make effective contingency plans for holding a 100 percent vote-by-mail election in November. There is no doubt that at least some of these plans will be needed. While it is unlikely that the whole country will be locked down, it is a near-certainty that there will be some coronavirus hotspots, perhaps entire states or even just individual counties, where public health officials have determined that in-person voting is unsafe. Americans should never be forced to choose between their health and their vote. And it is hard to imagine any court asking them to.
On top of that, our public-spirited billionaire will be offering grants to help counties and states organize vote-by-mail. These might be the first lawsuits in history where the remedy being imposed on a losing defendant is being forced to accept free money.
We simply can’t afford to leave protecting the November election to chance—or worse, to President Trump. The efficiency and fairness of our elections have been the pride of America since the earliest days of the republic. As we have seen with the primaries, the pandemic is placing that at risk. We utterly failed to prepare our health care system for the coronavirus and now we are paying the price. We cannot afford to do the same thing to our election system. Nor do we need to.
You wanted to make history, Mr. Mayor? Here’s your chance. You’ve got my number.