Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden recently proposed emergency voting reforms which would allow every U.S. state to expand the use of vote-by-mail. According to Klobuchar, these changes would help ensure that during the coronavirus pandemic, no citizen has to “‘pick between exercising their right to vote and protecting their health’” . The ultimate goal of such a measure is to ensure that elections during the public health crisis remain free and fair; that is, that the playing field is level for both candidates and every citizen is given an equal chance to vote in any way that they choose . Free and fair elections are an essential component of functional democracies. However, not everyone is in favor of these seemingly reasonable precautions. In reaction to the proposal, President Trump expressed on Monday, March 30 that some of the senators’ ideas were crazy, and if “‘you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again’” . This statement caught the attention of many informed observers, including members of the Democratic National Committee, who maintain that “‘Trump’s Monday comments showed he saw voter suppression as part of his re-election strategy’” .
Trump’s statements are also revealing of the suspicious attitude that is an inherent part of what Hofstadter calls “the paranoid style of politics” . Leaders who practice the paranoid style tend to believe in the existence of hidden adversaries integrated into the population with plots to undermine progress. Trump seems to imply in his statements on Monday that the push for vote-by-mail by democratic senators is a politically motivated action to prevent the future electoral success of members of the republican party. Because the president sees the opposition party as an existential threat to democracy, he might be more inclined to resort to voter suppression and reject a national vote-by-mail under the guise of protection from voter fraud. Should Trump make this decision, his supporters are likely to stand by him regardless, because they share his paranoid viewpoint and see elections as a standoff between ultimate good and ultimate evil . In this way, the president’s paranoid style makes American democracy vulnerable.
Although the president does not support the voting reforms, there are institutional checks and forms of resistance which will allow states to hold voting by mail if that idea is locally popular. In Heather Gerken’s article “We’re about to see states’ rights used defensively against Trump,” she describes the practice she has termed “uncooperative federalism” . Uncooperative federalism relies on the fact that the federal government is not able to implement all of the policies it passes into law and depends on state and city governments for enforcement. However, states can force the federal government to compromise by refusing to comply, because that sort of crackdown has economic and political costs that are usually not worth it. Essentially, even if Trump refuses to sign off on a national vote-by-mail, individual states can collectively make it a reality if they coordinate and create their own regional policies. Already there are five states that conduct all their elections through the mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah; and every state has its own policies for absentee voters, who can not physically make it to the polls and so must mail in their ballots . Such rights could be expanded in individual states to ensure that free and fair elections continue despite the global pandemic.
On the other hand, these reforms, while preferable from a global health perspective, might also have some downsides; many people are concerned, for instance, by how easy it will be to accidentally leave out or miscount votes under these circumstances. Pam Fessler explains some of the reasons why this is likely to happen in the NPR article “As Coronavirus Delays Primary Season, States Weigh Expanding Absentee Voting.” Some of the main reasons absentee ballots get rejected already is due to a lack of knowledge on the voter’s part of their state’s vote-by-mail policies. For instance, some states require a witness signature on the envelope in order to verify that it should be counted. Some states will accept ballots that arrive after the deadline as long as they are post-marked for the right date, while others will not. If vote-by-mail is expanded due to COVID-19, national education campaigns for voters will be of utmost importance . Whether it is by intentional voter suppression or by the accidents inevitable with the national implementation of vote-by-mail on such short notice, the COVID-19 pandemic will almost surely result in less free and fair 2020 elections in the U.S. The worst choice the United States could make at this point, however, is to refuse to even try. Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.  Fessler, Pam. “As Coronavirus Delays Primary Season, States Weigh Expanding Absentee Voting.” NPR, NPR, 24 Mar. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/03/24/820232540/as-coronavirus-delays-primary-season-states-weigh-expanding-absentee-voting.  Gerken, Heather. “We’re about to See States’ Rights Used Defensively against Trump.” Vox, Vox, 20 Jan. 2017, www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2016/12/12/13915990/federalism-trump-progressive-uncooperative.  Hinkle, Brian, and Wendy Underhill. “All-Mail Elections (AKA Vote-by-Mail).” All-Mail Elections (Aka Vote-By-Mail), NCSL, 24 Mar. 2020, www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/all-mail-elections.aspx.  Hofstadter, Richard. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Google Books, Vintage Books, 1964, books.google.com/books?  Levine, Sam. “Trump Says Republicans Would ‘Never’ Be Elected Again If It Was Easier to Vote.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 30 Mar. 2020, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/30/trump-republican-party-voting-reform-coronavirus.