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Audrey Hart / Gavel Media

Looking Ahead... Can Voter Turnout Survive COVID-19?

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has the nation nervously looking ahead to an uncertain future. Countless aspects of American daily life, long taken for granted, are unrecognizable or simply nonexistent. This massive upheaval that has affected every American now threatens our most sacred tenet of democracy, a fair election process. So far, 15 states have postponed their primary elections and many have been instituting less restrictive early voting and absentee ballot processes. 

Though the response varies from state to state, a trend is emerging along partisan lines. Democrats are largely supporting a mail-in ballot system, or simply extending absentee ballots to all registered voters. Republicans tend to oppose this, opting for a traditional election held at the polls. It would seem obvious to make it easier for all to vote safely, but the issue for the GOP is increased turnout. 

For decades, the GOP has worked to suppress turnout under the guise of battling voter fraud, but recently, President Trump made it clear what the underlying issue is. In a Fox and Friends interview on March 30, Trump discussed provisions in the coronavirus relief bill proposed by House Democrats to allow universal mail-in voting.

“They had things––levels of voting that if you ever agreed to it you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he described.

When Trump said “levels of voting,” he was referring to increased numbers of Americans voting due to the ease of mail-in ballots. He is not the only GOP member worried about this. Speaker of the Georgia House, David Ralston, agreed with Trump’s fear of increased participation. In a phone interview with FYNTV on April 1, Ralston said, “The president said it best. This will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.”

Ralston continued talking about the current Democratic effort in his own state to send mail-in ballots to all eligible voters, adding, “Every registered voter in Georgia. Let me emphasize that.”

During this interview, Ralston echoed many of the GOP talking points used to justify efforts at voter suppression. Voter identification laws and measures to restrict absentee ballots are often rationalized due to potential election fraud. Ralston went further, emphasizing the large expense of supplying stamps for mail-in ballots as a reason to oppose mail-in voting. At the end of the conversation, he made it clear what he was most concerned with. “What was the turnout in the primary back in 2018 or 2016? Was it 100%?” he asked and answered his own question, “No. It [was] way, way, way lower and… so… this will certainly drive up turnout I think.”

US House Representative Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, tweeted on March 24 in response to the House Democrats’ efforts, stating, “Universal vote by mail would be the end of our republic as we know it.”

The republic, as the GOP knows, is maintained by reducing turnout. The party faces an arduous task––it shrinks in size relative to the Democrats. A Rasmussen Reports article lays out the figures, “In aggregate, 40% of all voters in party registration states are Democrats, 29% are Republicans, and 28% are independents. Nationally, the Democratic advantage in the party registration states approaches 12 million.”

The core issue of party strength has been a catalyst for the decades-long GOP effort to restrict voters and for subsequent Democratic initiatives to increase participation.

Already, the US has one of the lowest voter turnouts among other developed countries. A Pew Research article reports, “The 55.7% VAP (voting age population) turnout in 2016 puts the US behind most of its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states.”

It would seem that increasing political participation among eligible voters would benefit all, but this is not the case for the GOP. A 2015 article in Political Research Quarterly addresses this, reading, “Republicans have embraced—if often surreptitiously—the mantra of Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, who infamously stated in 1980, ‘They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. . . As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.’”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this battle of voter turnout to the forefront of this year’s presidential election. The Democrats, who have the numbers in their favor, know that they must mobilize votes, whether it be on foot or by mail. On the other hand, the GOP might benefit from the pandemic. If the primaries and general elections are held in a traditional in-person format, the turnout will likely be lower than usual, due to fear of the virus. 

It is hard to tell what tomorrow looks like as COVID-19 cases rise in the nation. Rapid changes are the norm during this global pandemic, and though many of the primaries are rescheduled for late spring, no one is sure what May or June will bring. In the meantime, Democrats work to increase access to the vote by fighting for mail-in voting so that eligible voters can participate without risking infection. Republicans work to dissuade this process. 

The language is familiar. The same logic used to drum up support for voter identification laws and barriers for registration are now being used to fight mail-in voting. Americans are likely to be barraged with fear-mongering––voter fraud, ballot harvesting, illegal immigrants voting. 

It is not clear what the summer will look like, or what the outcome of the presidential election will be, but the American right (or ability) to vote will be protected. It remains to be seen whether the government will work to extend the most basic tenet of democracy to as many eligible voters as possible in the face of a pandemic. Though keeping track of the ever-changing news cycle and partisan politics can be a Sisyphean effort, Americans should beware of any subversive tactics used to keep them from the polls.