Our Right to Vote in November Is in Real Danger—But It Can Still Be Saved | Opinion

"The system was blinking red." That is what an intelligence official reportedly said about briefings President Donald Trump and congressional leaders received in January about the spread of coronavirus and its potential to become a pandemic.

As we are all now aware, Trump and his administration ignored the intelligence briefings and nearly all the warning signs. They failed to adequately warn the public, they failed to develop enough tests critical to tracking the virus's spread, and they failed to ensure hospitals had sufficient ventilators, masks, hospital beds and other essential resources to treat the sick.

The result is a government scrambling to catch up to a virus as it spreads across our nation at alarming speed, killing, already, over 2,300 Americans.

What started as a public health crisis has now turned into an economic crisis, with jobless claims already surging to a record 3.28 million in one of the first weeks of this crisis alone. And if we don't act soon, it will turn into a crisis for our democracy too.

The system is once again blinking red, and this time it's warning us about our ability to hold elections in November. Without action, and soon, Americans' right to vote is in real danger in the era of coronavirus.

The acute public health crisis and the gaping hole it is leaving in our economy need to be top priorities at the moment. But if Washington fails to make changes now to how we vote, our nation will be just as unprepared to hold an election this fall as we were to fight the virus this spring.

Already, we have seen 13 primaries postponed due to the coronavirus: Alaska, Delaware, Maryland, Georgia, Connecticut, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. And the ugly truth is that this is probably just a preview of what's about to come.

Unless we are able to flatten the curve—a task nearly impossible with Trump's illogical and dangerous determination to ignore the advice of experts and push the country to re-open for business, and with large states like Florida refusing to issue shelter-in-place orders—modeling suggests that it will be 12 to 18 months before we get the coronavirus under control. And while some experts suggest the virus's spread may slow this summer, it is expected to spread rapidly again as winter approaches. Which means the November election, the most important election that will be held in generations, could be held in the middle of an uncertain global pandemic.

On the best of days, our election system, a patchwork of 50 different state laws, rules and regulations, excludes far too many. Voter suppression through purges of voter rolls, voter disenfranchisement, modern-day poll taxes and long lines in predominantly minority precincts already denies millions of Americans every year their right to vote. And it now seems crystal clear that the November elections will be held in circumstances far from our "best of days."

If too many Americans avoid the polls on Election Day for fear of their health, that leaves an even smaller segment of the population with the power to choose our leaders for the next two to six years. This scenario has the potential to not only question the validity of our election results but also stymie the legitimacy of our representative democracy, no matter the victor.

While a president who has repeatedly "joked" about serving more than the constitutionally allowed two terms may be fine with compromised or postponed elections this fall, we cannot and must not accept this unthinkable reality.

Solutions exist to ensure a safe and accessible election in November. The most widely discussed plan, which has been endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union and pushed forward by legislation introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden, would expand vote-by-mail nationwide.

At least 34 states and the District of Columbia offer some vote-by-mail options, with some states, such as Colorado, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon, having all-mail voting. Vote-by-mail as a percentage of the total vote has grown in each recent election cycle to the point that in the 2018 election, a quarter of voters nationwide casting ballots voted by mail.

Ohio primaries
Polling stations throughout Ohio were shut down as Governor Mike DeWine called for the state's primaries to be pushed back to June on March 17 in Columbus. Matthew Hatcher/Getty

Other solutions are also worth exploring. This year, Democrats Abroad conducted their primary via secure email voting, and Florida residents residing outside the state were able to submit ballots via fax (digitally, not by some 1980s-era machine) in the primary. Other ideas, such as extending early voting by a month or more would allow people to vote and avoid large crowds.

These are just some of the ideas a coalition of more than 200 voting rights and other organizations recently sent in a letter to Congress, governors, and state and local election officials, outlining some of the steps that must be taken to ensure safe and accessible elections.

The problem is not a lack of available solutions; the problem is a lack of urgency to solve a problem that can be seen coming a mile down the tracks. Congress already wasted what might be their best, and possibly last, opportunity to address the coming voting crisis. Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, tried to include a vote-by-mail provision in the $2 trillion stimulus recently passed by Congress, only to have their efforts rebuffed by Republicans.

None of the solutions are easy or can be implemented overnight, which makes the lack of urgency all the more troubling.

The path back from this pandemic will not be easy or quick. Americans are losing their lives and livelihoods—partly because of circumstances out of our control and partly because of our government's failure to prepare, respond and plan on a basic level. And unless Congress kicks into action, and soon, our ability to choose the next president, as well as state and local officials, might be lost too.

Once again, the system is blinking red. The question is whether Washington will respond this time or not.

Doug Gordon is a Democratic strategist and co-founder of UpShift Strategies who has worked on numerous federal, state and local campaigns and on Capitol Hill. He is on Twitter at @dgordon52.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.