No time is right for a health pandemic, but COVID-19 couldn’t have arisen at a more inconvenient period for Americans: at the start of the 2020 presidential election race. Things had been proceeding somewhat normally until March, when concerns about the “novel coronavirus” began altering the social landscape. When I saw that this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo had been postponed – possibly to next year – I knew our world had been capsized by this invisible biological menace. Viruses, like facts, always have a way of sneaking into our lives and making us rethink everything we’ve ever learned. Facts, however, are good things. But, while a crisis of any kind can bring out the best humanity has to offer, it can also bring out the worst.
Right now political conservatives in the U.S. are trying to finagle the COVID-19 miasma into an obstructionist nightmare for the voting populace. Last week thousands of voters in Wisconsin were forced to leave their homes and venture out to designated polling places to cast their votes for a candidate in the Democratic primary. On April 6, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, refused to allow an extension of absentee voting in Wisconsin; thus, forcing the primary to go on as planned on April 7. On April 2, a federal judge had ruled that absentee voting can be extended. But unsurprisingly, the Republican National Committee appealed the ruling, which landed on the docket of the High Court.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that “the court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement.” She went on: “Because gathering at the polling place now poses dire health risks, an unprecedented number of Wisconsin voters – at the encouragement of public officials – have turned to voting absentee. About one million more voters have requested absentee ballots in this election than in 2016. Accommodating the surge of absentee ballot requests has heavily burdened election officials, resulting in a severe backlog of ballots requested but not promptly mailed to voters.”
Political conservatives don’t like it when people they consider insignificant actually have the audacity to practice their right to vote. For a good part of American history, they’ve done just about everything they could – including intimidation and violence – to stifle voting rights; which, they’ve obviously forgotten, is one of the fundamentals of a democratic society. The right to vote is clearly mentioned in the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution! Then again, they may not necessarily forget about it, as they just ignore it. And they always seem to skip over to focus attention on the 2nd Amendment, which addresses firearms.
Conservatives established and enforced such obstructionist tactics as “grandfather clauses”, literacy tests, and poll taxes. Voting advocates had to fight for confidential voting. Early feminists had to do the same to get the 19th Amendment ratified. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, he conceded that he and his fellow Democrats had probably handed the South to the Republican Party. And he was right! Slowly, but surely, over the ensuing decade, many White southerners began switching to the GOP. A number of well-known U.S. politicians, such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, also changed their allegiances to the Republican Party.
The election of Barack Obama solidified in the minds of many conservatives the horrors of expanded voting. They then launched a number of efforts – both at the national and state levels – to ensure that would never happen again. A slew of voter identification rules were suddenly enacted.
The COVID-19 scourge has prompted calls across the nation for expanded absentee voting, such as mail-ins, which has been rebuffed by conservatives who holler voter fraud could result. This week Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton opined that fear of catching the virus does not qualify voters to vote by mail.
But State Judge Tim Sulak ruled that Texans afraid of catching COVID-19 should be allowed to vote by mail during the pandemic, using the state’s disability clause in the state’s election code, and said he will issue a temporary injunction. The Texas Democratic Party and several had filed a lawsuit over concerns that voters in this July’s elections, including the primary runoffs, could come in contact with infected people when voting in person.
“Based on the plain language of the relevant statutory text, fear of contracting COVID-19 unaccompanied by a qualifying sickness or physical condition does not constitute a disability under the Election Code,” Deputy Attorney General Ryan M. Vassar wrote in a letter to Fort Worth State Rep. Stephanie Klick, a fellow Republican.
And, of course, Paxton was “disappointed” that Sulak had “ignored the plain text of the Texas election code to allow perfectly healthy voters to take advantage of special protections made available to Texans with actual illness or disabilities.”
The voter fraud claim is the default mantra of right-wing politicians every time they enact legislation that impacts the voting process. Texas Republicans have long opposed the expansion of mail-in voting. In 2017 the GOP-dominated state legislature stiffened penalties for election fraud.
“Our state is better off when more Texans participate in our democracy,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “Voting by mail is safe, secure and accessible. It allows more voters to participate in our democracy, and it’s a common sense way to run an election, especially during a public health crisis.”
Like the Texas Innocence Project, you know the Texas Democratic Party has their work cut out for them!
Currently, residents over age 65, military members, those who will be away from their residence during voting and people with disabilities can request mail-in ballots. Democrats argue that a disability, defined as a “sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring voters’ health,” covers all Texas voters under the age of 65, including those who are afraid to catch the COVID-19 virus.
In his letter to Klick, Vassar naturally disagreed, stating that fears of catching the virus is neither a sickness nor a physical condition, but an emotional reaction to the pandemic is not “sufficient to meet the definition of disability”.
It’s ironic that Vassar regards concerns of contracting COVID-19 as emotional. Throughout Obama’s presidency, conservatives screamed that his administration would ban all firearms, abandon Israel, and force churches to conduct same-sex weddings. None of that happened. It never has and most likely it never will. Yet, liberals are always justifiably concerned that voter suppression is a real possibility when conservatives are elected to office. Justifiably concerned because many state legislatures, such as Texas, actually have moved to enact legislation to combat the ubiquitous pandemic of voter fraud.
During Black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, news cameras captured horrific scenes of police physically assaulting individuals or using water hoses to attack groups of African-Americans. I’ve seen some of that footage – startling black-and-white images of mostly peaceful citizens wanting to vote or be able to enter a restaurant and have a meal. We don’t see that now. Instead, we see elected officials use the power of their position to suppress voting. Firearms have metamorphosed into pens – but they pose no less of a risk.
While I have my own doubts about the effectiveness of the voting process – the fraud-ridden elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump being the most recent examples – people in any truly democratic society have the right to cast a ballot. And eventually, the obstructionist tactics of those elected (not ordained) politicians will reveal the truth behind their dubious motives.