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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 4/22/20

Pandemic and Voting Rights

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From LA Progressive

How the Coronavirus Has Created New Battlefronts Over Voting Rights in Battleground States

Long lines in Georgia after voting machine issues
Long lines in Georgia after voting machine issues
(Image by YouTube, Channel: USA TODAY)
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When the 2020 election season resumes in Ohio on April 28 and continues in nearly half of the states through July, Americans will see if new voting regimens instituted in response to the pandemic will help voters or preview state-by-state partisan battles over voter turnout.

Already there are troubling signs that the past decade's voter suppression battles will continue and accelerate in battleground states. Wisconsin's April 7 primary, the month's only presidential contest that was not postponed by the pandemic, is exhibit A. However, as 24 states and territories will hold primaries and caucuses in coming weeks, and other elections this summer, Republicans in some states are already tilting the rules and means of voting to favor their base in the fall.

"We know that primaries help us see voter suppression in early forms, because voter suppression is systemic," said Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group now working in 18 battleground states. "What we have seen over the past few months is it is happening in almost every state where we are working."

The partisan moves come as states like Ohio, Georgia, Nevada and others are reconfiguring voting options in the pandemic. The emerging policies include uneven outreach to voters about voting by mail, hurdles to obtain an absentee ballot, and few opportunities for in-person voting. These changes and others, including whether voters can fix problems if ballots are rejected, break from long-held voting habits. Taken together, they will be deeply disruptive and disenfranchising, according to advocates like Abrams and Democratic Party attorneys whose teams have begun to challenge them in court.

"What we are seeing is an unprecedented effort to prevent people from voting," said Marc Elias, the Democratic National Committee's top voting rights lawyer. "This predates [COVID-19]. We know that for the last several years, we have seen legislature after legislature controlled by Republicans simply make voting harder. And they don't make voting harder for everybody. They make voting harder for minority voters and young voters."

Elias has fought GOP-led voter suppression for decades. In a Friday media briefing with Abrams, he cited prior federal court rulings against Republicans -- throwing out laws in North Carolina that targeted blacks with "surgical precision" and laws in Arizona that he said were driven by "racist tropes" to stop community groups from helping Native Americans to vote.

What unfolded in early April in Wisconsin after the pandemic broke was as dark as any of these past power plays, he said.

Wisconsin's Warning

In Wisconsin, Republican legislators and the Republican National Committee, aided by conservative majorities on the highest state and federal courts, ignored Democrats' concerns about public health, voting rights and election logistics. The fights between a Democratic governor and GOP-led legislature over postponing the election, last-minute court rulings ordering it to continue, and postal service delays with delivering ballots impacted turnout -- even as hundreds of thousands of people voted by mail for the first time. Thousands more voters braved health risks and waited for hours to vote in person, as many polls were closed due to shortages of poll workers, especially in communities of color.

The starkest figure attesting to the ensuing voter suppression was that 1.3 million voters across the state had requested absentee ballots, but only 1.1 million ballots were returned by an April 13 deadline. The ballots had to be postmarked by April 7 to be counted. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 22,748 votes in Wisconsin. Trump's margin was less than an eighth of the 197,489 voters who this April wanted, but failed, to vote absentee.

Before the pandemic, a senior Trump campaign lawyer declared that Trump would not be reelected without winning Wisconsin in November.

"Wisconsin is the tipping point to 270 Electoral College votes," Justin Clark told a Republican National Lawyers Association meeting in the state last November, where he also said Republicans have "always been" the (modern) party of voter suppression. "If we don't win Wisconsin, he's done."

More recently, the Republican National Committee and Trump campaign said that they would allocate $10 million to fight Democrats on voting rights in 2020.

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Steven Rosenfeld  covers democracy issues for AlterNet. He is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and has reported for National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, Marketplace,  TomPaine.com  and many newspapers. (more...)
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