The scenes around polling places in Washington, D.C., last week composed a dramatic portrait of the potential for civic disaster and renewal come Nov. 3.
The previous night was a dark one in American history. Police and federal troops used tear gas and stun grenades to violently push away peaceful protesters so President Donald Trump could walk to a staged photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The next day was primary day in D.C. Long after dark — at 10 p.m., even at midnight — voters were still in line to vote. Many had been there for more than four hours. Only 20 of the 143 polling places were open because of concerns about the coronavirus. Large but unknown numbers of voters hadn’t received the mail-in ballots they had requested.
Overhead, low-flying helicopters crisscrossed the jumpy city, menacing protesters — and everyone else. The panicky wail of sirens was constant.
Residents of the District of Columbia, who don’t even have representation in Congress, braved this unsettling ordeal to vote in primaries that only had a few contested local races.
Recent days have revealed brutal and vital truths about threats to orderly and legitimate elections come November. The country, our citizens — not just the parties, the states, the feds — better learn the right lessons and fast.
Orderly elections this year face a two-pronged threat: COVID-19 and intentional voter suppression in various forms. Keeping voters safe in November itself is a massive challenge. The risk of technical failures with new, safer methods is also high.
After this week, we know that states and cities may not be able to implement the single safest way to vote — mail-in ballots. Maryland and Pennsylvania also had breakdowns. There have been loud calls for election officials in D.C. and Maryland to be sacked.
Now we also know, after the St. John’s photo op, that there truly are no limits on what Trump will do to retain his powers, punish his perceived enemies and indulge his cruel impulses.
That means all the speculation, usually dismissed as alarmist, about how Trump and the Republicans could rig, disrupt and delegitimize the fall elections is now very plausible. They could try to delay the elections. Or send Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and unidentified armed troops to polling places where they want to suppress the vote. They will try to thwart mail-in voting and early in-person voting. Use your imagination; Trump’s team will.
We also learned that virtually no Republican in Congress will oppose the president’s most undemocratic, unconstitutional atrocities, despite Mitt Romney’s march and Colin Powell’s condemnation.
But here is the most important thing we have learned: Americans will literally risk their lives to vote.
We saw that in Wisconsin on April 7, at the height of the coronavirus scare, when thousands braved the germs of their neighbors and stood in line for hours.
We saw that last week in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. And in Georgia on Tuesday, voters waited in line for hours.
The fundamentally undemocratic superstructure that looms over all this is that the winner of popular vote will not necessarily win the election. Because of the distortions of the electoral college, if the popular vote isn’t distributed optimally, the candidate with fewer votes will win, as Trump did in 2016 and as Bush did in 2000.
This election will not be about persuasion. Five long months out, there aren’t many undecided voters left. This will be an election of mobilization, which makes fair voting even more important.
What can governments do? A lot. What will they do? Not enough, partly because of money, partly because of Republican opposition and partly because of legitimate logistical challenges and the limits of bureaucratic competence.
Congress approved $400 million to make voting safer from coronavirus infection. Much more is needed, as many organizations that have developed action plans have pointed out.
States could declare Election Day a holiday. Ten states don’t allow early in-person voting; they could fix that.
My recommendation is that voters, voter groups, civic organizations — the whole voting village — need to be more self-reliant and not count on government too much. They — we — need to be the ones to educate voters on their options, to get them masks if needed, to find young, healthy volunteers to man polling places, to monitor mail-in processes, to search out voter suppression dirty tricks.
Many argue it was because of that kind of ground-up, individual effort that the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been as bad as it could have been. Most Americans followed instructions and helped their neighbors, despite government’s many missteps.
Nov. 3 is D-Day.