Bookman: I’d hate to think opponents of vote-by-mail are politically cynical

A federal judge heard an ACLU complaint Friday that the Secretary of State's requirement that voters attach a 55-cent stamp to mail-in ballots amounts to a poll tax. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Georgia Republicans, like Republicans nationwide, seem terrified by the possibility of broader vote-by-mail efforts in response to the coronavirus.

According to House Speaker David Ralston, for example, broader use of voting by mail in the November election would be “extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia” because it “will certainly drive up turnout.”

President Donald Trump has said much the same thing, tweeting Wednesday that “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting,” citing “tremendous potential for voter fraud” and claiming that voting by mail, “for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

But here’s the question that Republicans have to answer: What’s your alternative?

If the virus returns in the fall, as most experts predict, how do you run a hotly contested national election in which thousands of poll workers are justifiably frightened to show up, forcing you to close most polling sites for lack of personnel? How do you ask tens of millions of Americans to wait in hours-long lines at the few remaining sites in the middle of a renewed pandemic? How do you justify the public-health impact, the additional deaths, the inability to participate in the most important rite of democracy?

What’s your plan for avoiding all that?

These aren’t theoretical questions. These are questions that we have to ask, and have to get answered, right now, while we still have time. Maybe the scenario I’ve just described won’t happen; maybe the second wave of coronavirus won’t appear this fall. Maybe we’ll get a normal fall football season and the schools will be able to operate normally and “social distancing” and “shelter-in-place” will just be bad memories of a bad time.

That would be wonderful, but it’s not what the experts are predicting, and we’re already experiencing the consequences of failing to plan, of failing to take action when we had the time.

We saw the problem play out this week, on a very small scale, in the state of Wisconsin, where they tried to conduct an off-season statewide election. In the city of Milwaukee, which would normally have 180 voting sites, they had five, because that’s all the poll workers they had. In Green Bay, where they would usually have 31 voting sites, they had two. In Kenosha, they had 10 instead of 22.

Wisconsin’s Democratic governor had tried to delay the election until after the peak of the pandemic; Republican legislators refused. The governor then tried to expand vote-by-mail as an alternative; the Republicans fought that idea and won in court.

The resulting scene was typified by an election-day interview with Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the House. “You are incredibly safe to go out,” he reassured voters as he stood in a local voting site, completely enveloped by a surgical mask, surgical gloves, surgical gown and plastic smock.

It’s also worth noting that Republican concerns about vote-by-mail fraud are extremely recent. Millions of Americans living overseas have voted by mail for decades, including service personnel and their families. Trump himself voted by mail in a recent election in Florida. And while Republicans have been obsessed with avoiding even the slightest possibility of voter fraud taking place during in-person voting, until now they have shown no similar concern involving voting by mail.

Here in Georgia, for example, voters who wanted to vote absentee once had to swear an oath that they would be out of state on Election Day or were otherwise unable to show up at the polls. Political parties were also forbidden to distribute applications for absentee ballots to voters. Those restrictions no longer apply – you no longer need an excuse to vote by mail in Georgia. And you know who made that change? Republicans did. In 2005, in the same bill that tightened voter ID requirements to such an extent that it was later ruled unconstitutional, GOP legislators significantly weakened security rules that applied to voting by mail, because that form of voting was popular among rural voters and the elderly that made up the GOP base. They wanted to make things easier for their own voters, and harder for their opponents.

And you know who voted in favor of that bill weakening security safeguards for voting by mail? David Ralston, the same man who as speaker now professes such concern about fraud. It’s pretty clear that these newfound concerns about voting by mail are about keeping turnout low and not based in honest concerns about fraud.

But again, what’s the alternative?

Without an aggressive push to get Georgians to vote by mail this fall, without ramping up the infrastructure we need to handle that surge, we could find ourselves in a situation much worse than that in Wisconsin this week. With the coronavirus predicted to return, with record turnout expected, with poll workers rightfully fearful of exposing themselves to contact with hundreds of voters, with voting reduced to a handful of polling sites, it would be impossible to conduct a free and fair election.

Of course, such concerns would be strongest in high-density urban areas, where lines are often hours-long even under normal circumstances and where coronavirus has been more deadly. I would hate to think that Georgia Republicans would block increased use of voting by mail for cynical political reasons, that they would use fear of coronavirus in the same way that Bull Connor and others used police dogs and water hoses, to discourage turnout of those most likely to vote against them.

I really would hate to think that.