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OPINION: Danger to Democracy

Absentee ballots will help, but the coronavirus still threatens the health of our elections.


When it comes to challenging our way of life, COVID-19 has a little something for everyone. The global pandemic threatens public health, obviously. But the resulting quarantine also has produced widespread unemployment, endangered small businesses and undermined the goals of public education. The virus even has further hardened the ideological and partisan divides in our country as the crisis has become more politicized.

Let’s add one more possible victim to the list: the health of our democracy, both here in Virginia and in America as a whole.

It may be hard to remember, but this is a presidential election year. The polarizing Donald Trump presidency has driven turnout way up in recent elections, both local and national. Yet the Virginia Department of Elections reported an almost 75% drop in April voter registrations as compared to 2016. Americans already vote at extremely low levels compared to other democracies. When going out in public is dangerous, the decision to vote becomes even less likely.

The turnout drop may already have affected local elections in hundreds of towns across Virginia. While these elections were originally scheduled for early May, Gov. Ralph Northam delayed them the maximum two weeks he could by law to try and encourage more absentee voting. The governor had asked the General Assembly to move these elections all the way to November. But the Senate refused to do so during its April session, with Republicans especially reiterating the usual defense of spring elections: Let’s keep them separate from national politics. For example, GOP Sen. Mark Obenshain warned against “subordinat[ing] local issues to the furor and din of a Presidential election.”

I am not a big fan of these arguments. Keeping out partisanship in our current polarized environment is a fool’s errand. Last fall we even had a self-declared Trump Republican candidate for Washington County commissioner of the revenue, whatever that is. Plus anything that makes people less likely to vote is an obstacle to a functioning, participatory democracy. The lack of partisan cues in local elections makes it even harder for voters to know how to choose. I would worry more about partisanship and national influence if turnout wasn’t criminally low in off-month, local elections.

The good news is that while the state legislature ignored the governor’s call to fix the spring elections, it had already done a lot to make voting easier earlier this year. During the regular session, the Democrat-controlled assembly made Election Day a holiday, repealed the unnecessary voter ID requirement, and -- most importantly for the current crisis -- allowed no-excuse absentee voting. Salem, which holds its city council elections this spring, has seen more absentee ballot requests than total voters for the last election. So these reforms may help offset the quarantine’s effects on turnout.

Not everyone is as hopeful, though. Republicans have argued that the Democratic reforms also promote voter fraud. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert told voters this month that “the integrity of the system is put in peril” by increased absentee voting. Republicans across the country have made similar claims about ballot access for years, despite the lack of any evidence for voter fraud beyond the rare isolated incident. And during a quarantine, the GOP is only hurting itself by telling voters not to trust absentee ballots: For many folks, that’s the only safe option for voting.

And make no mistake: In a state where the Republicans are already facing an uphill battle against an ongoing Blue Wave, the quarantine hurts their party much more than their opponents.

Take one prominent local race: the 7th Congressional District, where first-time incumbent Abigail Spanberger was set to face a tough opponent in a purple district. But the quarantine has made it difficult for her main challengers, Delegates Nick Freitas and John McGuire, to raise money and campaign. The party had to postpone a district convention, so the delegates are still concentrating on each other instead of Spanberger.

Sen. Mark Warner is another winner here. Even before the pandemic, the most prominent Republican to announce a run against him was former Rep. Scott Taylor. But Taylor reconsidered, thinking it better to try to win back his old House of Representatives seat than to take on a Democratic senator in an increasingly blue state. Now the winner of the Republican primary will be a little-known candidate who has had to build name recognition and campaign funds during a quarantine. Despite an extremely narrow victory in 2014, Warner was always going to be tough to unseat. The pandemic might have made it impossible.

In general, any kind of limits on campaign activity can only help incumbents. Spanberger, Warner and other folks in office can act officially, stockpile cash and wait for the race to really start. This is great if you like the incumbents, but it’s not so great for democratic participation and a functioning electoral system.

Absentee ballots will help. Republicans encouraging their voters to use them instead of fearmongering about fraud might help even more. When it comes to meeting the challenges brought on by the pandemic, it will take all of us to preserve not just public health, but our democratic health as well.

Richard Meagher is associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College. He blogs about state and local politics at rvapol.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.