NOTE: This story is part of “Together/Alone,” a column from Spectrum News Chief National Political Reporter Josh Robin that explores life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid bleakness and uncertainty, there’s a lot I’m seeing inspiring me.
Medical professionals, in the flimsiest of protective gear they’ve been given, tending the sick. This is life.
Children, sequestered for weeks, coloring rainbows and hanging them in windows from Milan to New York. This is spirit.
And voters in Wisconsin, clad in face masks, standing on line for hours, to cast ballots in an April 7 election. This is democracy.
Life, spirit, democracy.
I don’t think one is more important than the others.
We are making halting progress medically, which is nurturing our hope. How this pandemic wounds our democracy remains uncertain. Images out of Milwaukee and Kenosha from earlier this month deeply worry me.
To call that election a mess would be an insult to messiness. Both the Democratic presidential primary and a race for Wisconsin’s highest court were on the statewide ballot that day.
But Wisconsin was already two weeks into a stay-at-home order. Officials went back and forth, with the Republican-led legislature blocking the Democratic governor’s belated attempt to postpone the election or move it to mail-in only.
The U.S. Supreme Court got involved, reversing a lower court's order giving voters extra time to return ballots.
National Guard troops were dispatched.
The number of polling places in Milwaukee shrunk from 180 to five.
And yet people went to the polls — the “I Voted" sticker replaced by the hazmat suit.
“The circumstances under which this election was conducted were simply unacceptable, and raise serious concerns for the future of our democracy.” said Jill Karofsky, who that day won a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
It’s a rare victory speech when the person coming out on top says the election should never have happened.
There will be a general election November 3. Barring a highly unusual act of Congress, it cannot be postponed, nor should it. We’ve had elections during wars and the Great Depression.
What we should be doing is preparing to get ready for the real possibility that it could be too dangerous for poll workers and voters alike if we all vote in person.
That means quickly shifting towards safe voting by mail — at least as an option.
About a quarter of voters cast ballots by mail and absentee ballots in 2016.
“The ideal of an election is that every voice can be heard,” said Frank LaRose, Ohio’s Secretary of State.
In a first, Ohio’s April primary is shifting largely to mailed ballots — and is preparing to do the same for the general election, when normally about 75 percent of people vote in person.
LaRose’s official website makes no mention of his political party. It does say he is trying to “deliver a thriving democracy” for Ohio.
“I think that both parties compete and earn the votes of the public,” he told me.
Compare that to this: “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
That was a tweet from President Trump (who voted by mail in 2018).
Not that it matters, but like Trump, LaRose is a Republican.
“I think that people who want to vote for Republicans are going to do so and people who want to vote for Democrats are going to do so,” LaRose told me.
The recently-passed stimulus bill gives $400 million in election aid; observers seeking to safely expand ease of safe voting say that’s well below what is needed.
Of Democrats’ efforts to do just that, Trump candidly counters: “They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
But a bunch of states already vote largely by mail — states that went for Trump and didn’t. A federal agency (the U.S. Election Assistance Commission) concedes voting has significantly changed since the “Norman Rockwell image of the voter in the polling booth.”
Here’s the caveat: there are “relatively rare” cases of fraud in absentee ballots, says Prof. Richard Hasen, a nationally recognized expert in election law.
“The best data I've seen shows us fewer than 500 cases over 12 years across the United States involving elections where billions of ballots were cast,” Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine told me.
“It's not perfect. But without absentee balloting, I fear that in the time of a pandemic, we risk millions of voters potentially being disenfranchised.”
He emails: “Many people apparently did not receive the absentee ballots they requested. Others who received them got them too late to return in time for counting. Some of those people were then unable to vote in person because they were high risk for coronavirus, were out of town, or were otherwise unable to vote on election day.”
If it’s fair elections, and not higher turnout for Democrats, that really concerns the president, he and congressional leaders could add more funding to root out those rare instances of fraud. Perhaps a bipartisan panel could tap his fellow Republican LaRose.
We saw this virus’ death march earlier this year from China to Europe, and we didn’t do enough to save lives.
Let Wisconsin be a warning when it comes to saving our democracy. Luckily for us, we still have time.
Looking out the Window. This morning, I spent a while researching the history of the window, intermittently peering through a pane at whatever green I could find outside. You may find this too solitary for you, too depressing. I also see it as a chance to recognize your view will never be fully the same from one moment to the next. “All Things Must Pass,” George Harrison sang. His album of the same name was released nearly 50 years ago.
Trapped Parent Tip
Baking Cookies. What other way can you feed yourself, comfort your family, buy time, bond with your kids — and have your child learn fractions and measurements? And I learned something from my 9-year-old. Don’t just throw scoops of dough on a buttered sheet, as I’d been doing. Roll them into neat balls, ensuring more even baking.