It’s obvious how voting in public amid a pandemic is not compatible with safety. The federal government’s health experts have recommended that people stay home and keep their distance from one another. Voters would have to disregard that lifesaving guidance in order to cast their vote. That is why experts and advocates have strongly recommended that the United States move to a system of voting by mail for the upcoming general election. Doing so would ensure that people can exercise their franchise and that America remains a representative democracy without threatening millions of lives.
That’s precisely what Wisconsin voters were given: more time to secure absentee ballots and more time to send them in. The governor ordered residents to stay at home only as recently as March 24, and many voters who requested their ballots at that point did not anticipate receiving them in time to return them for today’s election, because the state recently received an extraordinary number of absentee-ballot requests. Some of these voters filed a lawsuit, and successfully obtained a federal court order allowing residents to cast absentee ballots as long as the ballots were postmarked by April 13—a one-week extension.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that order, and as a result, officials are now requiring any absentee ballots to be postmarked by today, April 7. Voters without absentee ballots therefore have a choice: Don’t vote, or risk your life in order to do so.
The Court did little to explain its decision. It first maintained that the residents never requested the extension (though the dissent referenced a portion of the case transcript in which they did). The Court then cited a prior decision, Purcell v. Gonzalez, that reasoned that courts should be reticent to disturb election procedures close to the date of an election. But that principle is based on the idea that elections should not be riddled with last-minute chaos. It is hardly applicable to the circumstances that the country is facing now—namely, an election that is already riddled with the sweeping, last-minute chaos resulting from the coronavirus.
Who will benefit from the Court’s decision and who will be hurt—and possibly killed—by it is entirely predictable. The Court’s decision will depress voter turnout in the all-important judicial elections. The president recently said out loud what Republican voting strategists have long seemed to believe: Lower voter turnout benefits Republicans. With higher levels of voting, as Trump put it, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
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The Court’s decision particularly gives African American voters, the historic backbone of the Democratic Party, a life-and-death choice. Wisconsin has more than 2,500 coronavirus cases, and some populous cities (of more than 70,000 residents) have only one polling location. And early data show that African Americans die of the coronavirus at a higher rate than whites—perhaps because of racial disparities in the health-care system or socioeconomic disparities that prohibit poorer communities from taking various preventive measures. The area in Wisconsin with the largest black population (Milwaukee) now has only five polling places (whereas it normally has 180).