Why We Need Postal Democracy

Drawing of masked people waiting to vote
Drawing by Tom Bachtell

Nothing symbolizes democracy like long lines at the polls on election day. They represent a collective act of faith, as chances are virtually nil that any one of the votes we cast over our lifetime will determine the outcome of an election. They remind us that many of our fellow citizens have had to fight to stand in such lines. And because long lines are also often a sign that election officials have failed to provide sufficient voting opportunities, they illustrate the tenacity of citizens who insist on casting their ballots even when the government seems more interested in obstructing than in facilitating the franchise.

Not since the civil rights era, when African-Americans in the South braved death threats to exercise their right to vote, has a voting line embodied this commitment more profoundly than on April 7 in Milwaukee. People lined up around the block, trying to maintain six-foot social-distancing intervals, to vote in what was a relatively unimportant election. At issue were only the all-but-concluded Democratic presidential primary, a single state supreme court seat, and a small number of lower state and local offices. At a time when their governor and mayor—both Democrats—had instructed them to shelter in place, these Milwaukee citizens had come out to stand in public for hours in order to exercise their constitutional right. The city, which ordinarily operates 180 polling places, opened only five, as poll workers balked at showing up. At least forty voters and poll workers may have contracted the coronavirus as a result.

It was government officials who compelled them to risk their health, and possibly their lives, to vote: specifically, the Wisconsin state legislature, the justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the justices of the United States Supreme Court—or more accurately, the Republican members of those institutions. The Republican-gerrymandered state legislature blocked Governor Tony Evers’s efforts to delay the election until June or to conduct an all-mail election. When the governor invoked his emergency powers to unilaterally suspend in-person voting until June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, on a party-line 4–2 vote, nullified his order, proclaiming that he lacked the authority to take such action. For their part, all of the court’s justices voted absentee; they weren’t risking a trip to the polls.

The night before the election, the US Supreme Court stepped in to stay a federal district court ruling that had merely extended by six days the deadline for the state to receive absentee ballots, including those postmarked after election day. The district court imposed this modest extension when it became clear that thousands of voters would not receive their absentee ballots until after the election, because an unprecedented surge in requests for such ballots overwhelmed the Wisconsin electoral system. The US Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority declared that the district court’s order violated the principle…


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