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John Nichols: Stacey Abrams on how to have a safe and fair November election

John Nichols: Stacey Abrams on how to have a safe and fair November election

Georgia’s June 9 primary election was a disaster. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s headline on the morning after a day of voting that was marred by long lines, understaffed polling places and a general sense of chaos: “‘Complete Meltdown.’” When Republicans tried to blame county officials instead of GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Stacey Abrams called BS. Abrams, whose 2018 Democratic gubernatorial bid was derailed in another mangled Georgia election, said, “It is not sufficient to say that the county you live in determines the quality of your democracy. That’s why we have the secretary of the entire state — not just the counties that do it right, not just the counties that have the resources, not just the counties that he likes.”

The former Georgia legislative leader, who had to wait in a long line to vote in person last Tuesday because the absentee ballot she requested did not arrive, said, “All I can think about are the people who did not receive their ballot, who were forced instead into hours-long lines, and not because they failed to do their part but because the Secretary of State’s office failed to manage this election.”

If the nightmare that played out in Wisconsin when Republicans forced in-person voting at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic was a wake-up call, last week’s meltdown in Georgia was a red alert. We have to act now to assure that things don’t go wrong in November, when voters go to the polls in Wisconsin, Georgia and states across the country. Abrams, who heads the voting rights group Fair Fight, spoke with me recently about how — in the face of unresolved COVID-19 threats, mass unemployment and all the other issues facing the country — to get things right.

JOHN NICHOLS: What are the steps that we should take as a country, and in particular states, to assure that we have a successful November election?

STACEY ABRAMS: For November, it is a very clear set of responsibilities:

• Number one, we have to have vote-by-mail. Vote-by-mail exists in every single state already (as absentee voting). We simply have to scale it so that every state can execute it at the level necessary for a country in crisis, and that is doable.

• Number two, we have to have in-person early voting and in-person Election Day voting that is safe and compliant with the CDC guidelines. There are communities that cannot vote by mail because they are disabled, because they require language assistance, because they are homeless or transitional, because they do not have fixed addresses, or because they attempted to vote by mail and were not successful in the process and have to come in order to have their votes counted.

So if we think about it as a toolbox, vote-by-mail, in-person early voting, and in-person Election Day voting is the safest, most acceptable way to generate a high-turnout election.

To do so, we have to meet some gold standards:

• Ballots have to be sent to every eligible voter, and they have to be postage-paid so that people can vote without paying a poll tax.

• There should be a postmark requirement. The Supreme Court, despite their disastrous decision in (a case involving the voting in Wisconsin), acknowledged that it is insufficient to say that it has to be returned by a certain date because most people have no control over the mail, especially those who live in remote and rural communities where mail delivery was slow early on and is now creeping along.

If we meet those gold standards, if we make sure that there's the opportunity for registration on the same day or early online registration, then we can have successful elections.

And I'll point out this: South Korea had their first incidence of COVID-19 around the same time as the United States. In the midst of their process, on April 15, they had a national election, which achieved the highest turnout that they have had since the 1990s. President Moon managed to maintain and manage a successful democracy in the midst of a pandemic.

I believe America is capable of the same. I do not believe that there is any justification — certainly not the abject lie of rampant voter fraud — that should deter us from doing what the majority of Americans believe, which is that if you're eligible to vote, you should be able to vote, and that means you should be able to vote by mail if you choose, and if you choose not to or cannot, that you can vote in-person.

NICHOLS: You are a Wisconsin native, born in Madison. Tell me how you felt, what you thought, as you saw the play-out of the Wisconsin election on April 7.

ABRAMS: It was horrifying. It was anti-American. It was mean and callous. But it was also an example of how vital the work that not only Fair Fight 2020 does, but that other organizations are doing. It’s vital to our nation's future.

We worked very closely with Ben Wikler, the chair of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin, and with Dave Kronig, who is the voter protection director. We set up hotlines that they were able to use in advance. Typically these things don't get set up until right before a general election, but they were in place in Wisconsin during early voting and during the early process so that people could call and when information changed, when overnight the governor was thwarted by the state legislature, and when the state Legislature pushed its narrative and got part of what they wanted from the Supreme Court.

Every one of those moments, we had people ready to answer those questions at a scale to meet the moment.

I have family that lives in Wisconsin. I have family that suffers from COVID-19. And they know, as do most Wisconsinites, that their ability to shape their future, and particularly their recovery, was dependent on participating in that election.

There should never be a moment in American history again where we tell people they have to put their lives on the line in order to practice the most fundamental act of democracy, and that is casting their vote.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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