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U.S. should switch to mail-in ballot to circumvent threats to democracy

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An American voter posts their ballot from overseas. Image: Jeff Knezovich​/Flickr

Plummeting in opinion polls, the 45th U.S. president suffered another setback on July 6, when the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruled out one potentially egregious Republican election cheating method. The justices ruled nine to zero that, in a presidential election, state electoral college representatives are required to vote the same way the public voted.

Unlike the parliamentary system, U.S. voters don't vote directly for a candidate in a presidential election. The 12th amendment to the U.S. constitution says they vote for electors to the electoral college, who assemble and vote for the president a month later.

In theory, electors should always vote a straight ticket for the candidates they are pledged to represent. Instead, in 2016, five "faithless" electors who were pledged to Clinton, and two who were pledged to Trump, wrote in other candidates' names

Hillary Clinton won nearly 2.8 million more popular votes for president in 2016 than did the current incumbent. Similarly, in the 2000 presidential race, George W. Bush became president although Al Gore actually won about 500,000 more votes nationally than Bush did. 

With one nifty little cheating method ruled out, the Republicans have only, oh, half a dozen other ways to manipulate the national vote. Unfortunately for them, the pandemic has rendered many standard election dirty tricks ineffective.

Mind you, both main U.S. parties, the Democrats as well, have their own traditional ways of seeking advantage. For ages, Chicago Democrats were known for their diligence in registering all eligible Chicago voters -- and spelling their names correctly -- even those in the graveyards. Very active Democratic ward captains might have two or three city jobs, on paper, paying them to carry out Democratic party work. Other techniques are more or less fair game in the U.S., but not in other countries.

Take "gerrymandering," or drawing electoral districts in irregular shapes in order to elect more preferred candidates, usually for the party in power during the redistricting. In 2010, the national Republican party concentrated on winning state legislatures, in order to ensure the 2011 federal election redistricting map worked to their advantage -- as it did, in 2016. Author David Daley described project REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project) to Bill Moyer:

"It’s a $30-million strategy, centred around flipping and winning state legislative chambers control in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida. And by winning 117 state legislative races in 2010 across these states, they are able to lock in the power, not only to redraw all of their own maps, but to redraw Congress."

Voter suppression remains a favourite Republican technique, somewhat refined from 1964 Selma, when police and highway patrolmen beat Black would-be voters with batons to stop them from registering to vote. The Brennan Center for Justice singled out "purges" of voter rolls as particularly worrisome recently, noting that "Almost four million more names were purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016 than between 2006 and 2008."       

The latest report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that: "Mississippi strips the right to vote from people convicted of certain felonies." In Georgia, "counties with high populations of Black voters reported extraordinary waits in polling sites and restrictive ID requirements. In Florida ... a legal battle is still being waged against what amounts to a modern-day poll tax ... And Alabama remains one of the most difficult places in the nation to cast a ballot ... "

Outside hacking: In addition to the usual internal election interference techniques, the U.S. faces outside meddling. Russia launched an aggressive cyber campaign in the 2016 U.S. election that "...revealed not only the extent to which information and communications technologies are being used to undermine democratic processes but also the weaknesses of protection measures," said a 2018 paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

"As is becoming abundantly clear, Russia has targeted several elections and referenda over the last few years ...," says a 2018 NATO report.

"This conduct is unacceptable. Credible elections and referenda are at the heart of liberal democracy ... The Russian way of cyber and information warfare is to attack and/or exploit the very institutions that make liberal democracies strong, particularly freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and free and fair elections ..."

Voter distrust: "Nearly three in five Americans don’t have confidence in the honesty of our elections, a February Gallup poll found," says a May report in The Atlantic. "Republicans, Democrats, state officials, grandmothers, first-time voters, the politically engaged, the anti-institutionalists -- pretty much the only thing they could agree on was their doubts about the integrity of our democracy. And that was before the pandemic made everything worse ... " 

On the other hand, the pandemic may push the U.S. to a universal, unhackable, trusted method of voting -- the mail-in ballot. Health-care experts said way back in April that mail-in ballots would be the safest way to conduct elections.

The issue came to a head, says Wired magazine, "Wisconsin held its primary ... without adequate protections for poll workers or voters, who stood in crowded lines for hours at a handful of open polling places."

Every U.S. state already offers absentee mail-in voting in some form, and few of them even require an excuse. With a quick, temporary loosening of the rules, anyone who feels unsafe going to the polls could pop their ballot in the mail instead. And coincidently, a mail-in ballot would circumvent all the voter suppression measures Republicans have enacted since the conservative Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. 

NPR reported:

"The fight over absentee voting rules is so intense because both sides think it could affect the outcome of the November elections. Studies have shown that young, minority and new voters, who lean Democratic, tend to have their absentee ballots rejected more often than older, white voters who lean Republican. Republicans are also concerned that loosening the rules will boost Democratic turnout. Trump admitted as much earlier this year, telling an interviewer that if some of the restrictions are eliminated, 'you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again.'..."

The main problem with the mail-in ballot is that the United States Postal Service (USPS), long financially independent, has staggered under $13 billion in losses since U.S. businesses went into pandemic lockdown. Despite 45's grudge against Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post and its critical editorials, USPS workers see Steve Mnuchin's refusal to provide USPS the same funding as other businesses as a shock doctrine grab, an attempt to force USPS into debt, in order to privatize it.  

Others see White House objections as even more worrisome. "All the plans we have for a safe and legitimate general election in November depend heavily upon the ability to expand vote by mail," writes law professor Richard Hasen. "Yet those plans would be completely upended if the United States Postal Service collapses, a ridiculous but real possibility ... " because of the current president's opposition to emergency funding for USPS.

No doubt other election-cheating cases are on their way to SCOTUS as we speak. No doubt hackers in other nations are rubbing their hands, preparing to disrupt the U.S. election by transposing a few digits here and there. SCOTUS' latest ruling should be a giant red flag that the state-by-state voting system is broken. The only way the U.S. has a prayer for a safe, legitimate election, is the mail-in ballot.

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local column in Calgary for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004-2013.

Image: Jeff Knezovich​/Flickr

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