Viewpoint: Voting in a time of pandemic: Expand mail-in balloting now

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

Our notion of a free and fair election – the cornerstone of a democracy – is under siege from enemies foreign and domestic.

We already have the occupant in the Oval Office helped thereby Russian interference which has not abated.

He has already demonstrated willingness to extort foreign help (Ukraine) to win re-election (what if China and Iran now back the opponent? Wouldn’t that be interesting) and willing to use whatever levers he now can wield due to holding that office.

Now a pandemic is making it physically difficult, even dangerous, for people to cast their vote in person – basically giving people a choice of endangering their lives and that of family and community, even turning voting into an act of civil disobedience against shelter-in-place orders, not to mention that a fraction of polling places are open because of the lack of poll workers.

But wherever Republicans are in control, they exploit the situation to suppress voting.

Wisconsin’s state Legislature blocked the expansion of mail-in voting; Senate Majority Leader “Grim Reaper” “Moscow Mitch” McConnell is blocking the Election Protection Act and four similar bipartisan bills, and the right-wing Supreme Court, which already has undermined elections with decisions including Bush v Gore, Citizens United, Shelby, and its refusal to hear challenges to partisan gerrymandering, just this week blocked the Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ attempt to expand mail-in ballots or delay the primary election. But Republicans calculated a low turnout would advantage the election of another Republican state supreme court judge.

“With this outrageous ruling the Supreme Court’s far-right majority put not just its thumb, but its entire fist, on the scale in favor of making it harder for people to vote,” writes Ben Betz, Digital Director of People for the American Way. “This ruling will disenfranchise tens of thousands of Wisconsin voters in the midst of a terrible public health crisis, forcing them to choose between casting their ballot or risking their health and the health of others. If there were any lingering doubt that Republican aims of voter suppression were being aided and abetted by the courts and via far-right appointments to the bench, it was removed tonight.”

Of course, there is a solution to Wisconsin’s vote, just as there was for Ohio: poll workers in protective gear standing outside could have handed a paper ballot or even the absentee ballot (if they are one of the states that have no paper trail), as the voter is in the car or walking by, who would then hand it back to another the end of the driveway or let the voter deposit the ballot later in the day in a secure box. Then the ballots would be checked against the registration book and run through scanners as they would absentee ballot. Most critically, there should be mandatory audits of the electronic tally against the paper ballots for this and every other election.

But unlike Wisconsin which arguably was pressured into making accommodations too close to the election, now there is ample time to organize procedures for November. But clearly Trump and the Republicans see an advantage in suppressing voting, as they have for the past 20 years.

In an interview on “Fox & Friends,” Trump derided proposals from Democrats in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill that would have provided $2 billion for absentee and vote-by-mail options (they got $400 million).

“The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump told Fox. “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Looking ahead, Brennan Center for Justice offers its own cogent plan for “How to Protect the 2020 Vote from the Coronavirus” that require making polling places accommodating, safe and sanitized, taking into consideration the need to avoid lines and crowds and using sites that don’t pose an added risk (like senior centers), making sure to notify voters of the location, hours, etc.; making ballot-marking procedures to minimize viral transmission, adding machines and staff; expand early in-person voting; expand mail-in voting options, postage free; send inactive and recently purged voters provisional ballots if they request a mail ballot; provide expanded means for requesting ballots, online, in person, by mail and phone, with secure methods to sending and returning ballots, and expanded deadlines for returning the ballots; and secure methods to evaluating the validity of the ballot (not rejecting ballots for arbitrary technical reasons); bolster methods for registering voters including online; take steps to prevent disinformation and confusion to suppress voting and manipulate an election. (See https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/policy-solutions/how-protect-2020-vote-coronavirus)

Wisconsin is interesting because Republicans that have controlled the state purged over 200,000 voters before the 2016 election, made it harder to access to the polls, and Trump managed to squeak out a win by a measly 23,000 votes, one of the three states with a combined 77,000 votes that gave Trump the Electoral College despite Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by 3 million.

Wisconsin is ground zero for what is wrong with US elections (For an excellent description of the incredible vulnerabilities of America’s election system, especially in red states which are using easily-hackable electronic voting with no paper ballot, let alone mandatory audit, watch HBO documentary, Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections)

Compared with 2016, “the election system in 2020 is more vulnerable to remote attack,” says Harri Hursti, a Finnish computer programmer who has been tracking vulnerabilities in U.S. election systems for more than a decade.

You only need to flip votes –perhaps three per district which would be undetectable – in three of the five battleground states.

Indeed, Trump could conceivably lose California and New York by 60 points (80-20), lose the popular vote by five or six million, but eke out the five states by 50.1% – or win the same 42 percent of votes to 58 percent for the Democrat, and take the Electoral College…. again.

Now, the biggest problem in November is that whoever loses will claim the election was illegitimate, rigged. That’s why they have to institute mandatory audits.

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