We can forestall the looming democratic crisis facing the United States, but we need to move quickly. And since the COVID-19 crisis has shown us that the federal government will not solve this, much can be done if states act quickly.
COVID-19 did not create the crisis of liberal democracy. I spent last semester warning my students and anybody else who would listen about national and global threats to liberal democracy that predate Trumpism. Though this threat took on many forms here in the United States, voting rights – a necessary but not sufficient condition for the health and sustenance of democracy – have been under assault for many years through things like voter suppression and gerrymandering. More recently, from the Supreme Court decision on Shelby vs. Holder that invalidated key aspects of the Voting Rights Act to President Trump’s spurious claims of past and potential voter fraud, free and fair elections in the US have faced unprecedented threats.
Now bring on the global pandemic where in the US the likely presence of COVID-19 in the fall makes holding elections as if business were usual nearly impossible. Witness the Wisconsin primary last month where an inability to reach a political compromise on mail in voting resulted in citizens having to choose between voting and their health.
Like with the steps we needed to take to reduce the economic and public health carnage of COVID-19 – such as social distancing, testing and contact tracing, electoral experts agree that we can make voting safe and inclusive. Steps such as expanding mail in balloting, lengthening the time for early voting, making online voter registration easy and accessible, and designing polling locations in November that will allow for social distancing and the safety of poll workers are all necessary and possible. There is no shortage of good detailed plans out there.
So given the federal failures across all levels of planning and implementation during this global pandemic, leadership for averting this democratic crisis is coming from governors and states, and not the federal government. Moreover, it is coming from both Democratic and Republican Governors, and from a recent bi-partisan report. It is fortuitous that states control election laws, and many are taking important steps to avoid the COVID-19 democratic crisis that looms before us. Though the first stimulus bill included $400 million for states to invest in their electoral systems, most experts agree that we need nearly $4 billion to get us ready for elections in November. Let the feds provide the money and get out of the way so we can avoid yet another COVID-19 related crisis. It is not too early to start learning from our mistakes.