Adam Serwer: Trump is inciting a coronavirus culture war to save himself
Donald Trump could wreak all manner of havoc on this year's presidential election, including by urging paramilitary foot soldiers to intimidate voters and deploying the military itself to put down imagined threats. One thing he cannot do, however, is stop it from happening. A wartime commander in chief may suspend habeas corpus, and a governor may delay a primary, but a president has no mechanism by which to cancel a general election. The Constitution grants Congress the sole power to determine the timing of elections. With the House of Representatives firmly in the Democrats’ hands, the institution will not bend.
Two things, then, are certain: The election will happen, at least in some form, and Donald Trump will do everything he can to undermine it. Given his willingness to place personal interests above all others, it is safe to assume that he will use the current emergency to his advantage. So how can America ensure a free and fair election amid a genuine public-health crisis, under a president whose future depends on the judgment of voters?
The first step is to expand early voting, to avoid crowding at polling locations. This must be followed by the allowance of nationwide “no excuse” absentee ballots, so that any eligible voter can either mail in or drop off his or her ballot with no explanation required. Some groups will claim that these methods lead to massive fraud. They do not. Expanding voter access dramatically increases participation with little evidence of a corresponding increase in fraud. In any case, severe penalties for voter fraud exist across the country.
Beyond these actions, Americans must guard against voter intimidation in all its forms. It may come from the president himself, as when he directed his followers to “go out and watch.” But it will just as likely come from administration-loyal governors, who retain enormous powers during emergencies, including the ability to limit the right of assembly and freedom of travel. If such restrictions appear targeted toward particular communities, especially those already marginalized, Americans must sound the alarm.
Unfortunately, the country is running out of time. With a kind of grotesque symmetry, the threat to the fall election is playing out in much the same way as the COVID-19 pandemic. Warning lights are flashing, yet lawmakers hesitate. Most state legislatures, where these reforms must be passed, are not acting with the urgency this crisis demands. Many require bills to be voted on in person. As more representatives become ill, lawmaking itself may become life-threatening. But it must happen, even if remotely.
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In justifying his decision to delay Ohio’s primary, Governor DeWine said, “The only thing more important than a free and fair election is the health and safety of Ohioans.” I supported his decision to delay the vote, but his assertion about the relative importance of free elections is dead wrong. The only thing that matters more than our health and safety is the freedom to choose how we are governed. Countless Americans have risked their lives, and some have died, to guarantee that right.
So Americans must defend it. Not with mobs of vigilantes or tales of voter fraud, but with foresight, planning, and, most of all, courage. The promise of self-government deserves no less.