Voting in a pandemic is not easy. It is true that the risk of contagion is not necessarily greater than that of going to a store or supermarket to do the shopping: a waiting line that almost always takes place outdoors, a few minutes (not many) in a closed place with more people (not too many) who hardly have to interact closely, and outside. But it constitutes one more act of exposure, a small ticket in the covid-19 lottery. It is for this reason that many people, particularly those belonging to risk groups, prefer to exercise their right without moving and vote by mail. But the president and candidate for re-election Donald Trump has decided to turn this event into a scandal, pointing to a risk (of which there is no reliable evidence) of massive fraud to dismount him in the middle of the race.
All of this may seem like one more Trump occurrence, but in reality it is one more link in a chain of long-standing arguments put forward by the Republican Party, aimed at limiting access to the vote of broad layers of American society: in This country, when turnout is high, is usually good news for Democrats because they are racial minorities, lower-income households, more skewed to the left. And the real reason these kinds of strategies are even possible in the United States, one of the few established democracies in which the right to vote is an open matter for debate, is in a way the original sin of the longest-standing democracy. of the world.
📬 Voting by mail was not born yesterday
America is a huge country, and very, very scattered. Especially in its northwestern extreme: expansion towards the west during the 19th century and part of the 20th produced a sparse geography, where distances have a very different scale from coastal metropolises. In that corner of your map are Oregon and Washington, two states that approved voting by mail for their entire population in 1998 and 2011 respectively. Colorado would join in 2013. Hawaii and Utah also consider voting by mail as the default option. Consequently, the majority of votes in these places are cast by post.
In sum, one in five votes in the Trump-Clinton election were cast by mail nationwide. The proportion varies greatly from one State to another, but in most of them the trend is upwards: in the last two decades, the figure has doubled, driven mainly by the incorporation of this practice in the States mentioned above. and for those places that do not require a specific excuse to vote for this modality; mainly California, the most populous state in the country.
These figures are in no small measure a product of the variation in regulations: a Brookings Institute study that calibrates the quality of access to vote-by-mail draws the west-east grading well.
But, and this is remarkable, another dividing line is also guessed: the old border between North and South. One that immediately and irremediably leads the eye to the Civil War.
📜 America's Original Sin
The United States had to go to war with itself when the Union was incomplete for the Constitution, a century after it was drafted, to finally include the following sentence: “The right of United States citizens to vote cannot be denied or limited by the Union or by any of its member states for reasons of race, color or prior condition of servitude ”. It is the 15th Amendment, which cost a civil conflict over the central issue of slavery. That is the original sin of one of the democracies on which all the rest of the world were modeled: the condition in which it maintained its population of African-American origin from its foundation until that moment, stripping it of all rights, also the most basic precisely in a democracy.
But even after the amendment was passed in 1870, southern states still managed to maintain a apartheid comprised in a dense tangle of restrictions, among which were also a number of apparently administrative limitations that were in fact designed to restrict the effective vote of African Americans. It took another century for the federal government to approve a preventive legal lever: it reserved de jure the prerogative to review any voting legislation of any member state. A part of the South did not like it (nor that, nor that the possibility of legislating where they sat or what bar a person could go according to their skin color disappeared), to the point that then-president Lyndon B. Johnson (Party Democrat) had to force certain state governments to comply with the rule.
From the 1960s to the present day, this tug of war has moved into the legislative chambers of the States and the courts: a constant tug of war in which politicians from the dominant party in the south, the Republican, look for ways every increasingly creative to limit the access to vote of those who know that they will not give it to them, but to those who defended their civil rights (the Democrats). One of the most common is the introduction of additional requirements to show some type of identification when voting (the US does not have a federal identification card), a requirement that is less likely to be fulfilled by racial and economic minorities than they are more likely to fall into the exclusion margins of the system.
Note the certain similarity that the distribution of this type of requirements has with the facility for voting by mail painted in the previous map; particularly, in the southeastern part of the nation. A historical heritage that lives on today, despite the fact that the Supreme Court is not of this opinion. In a 2018 decision, the court struck down parts of the legislation passed in Johnson's time, essentially arguing that the country had already overcome those problems and the right of states to organize elections as they saw fit prevailed over the desire to the capital to prevail over them.
But the 2016 data indicates that there is still a very clear race bias in people registered to vote (the only requirement common to the entire federation is to register before exercising your right).
Also of income, which inevitably is a consequence of the previous one, while the majority of lower-income households in the US are not white.
It is legal to underline that voting by mail does not correspond exactly to this pattern, but its expansion does amount to an expansion of the avenues to access suffrage, and that is the constant fear of the Republican Party: that in said expansion more will enter supports for the rival who for them is always more likely than the alternative. Trump's tone when questioning him may sound particularly histrionic, but in his reason for being he does not move a millimeter from the trajectory marked by the Republican Party since the expansion of civil rights.
👉 Fraud or strategy?
Correspondingly, among the states truly at stake (those where polls indicate a close race between Trump and Biden for victory), it is those of the blue government that present an effort to expand and streamline the vote-by-mail processes. Minus the Republicans, with the exception of Iowa. The other two red exceptions, Georgia and New Hampshire, do not come at the initiative of the executive branch, but of the judiciary, forcing the respective parties to extend the date or possibilities for those who wish to vote remotely by the pandemic.
Texas, in fact, is making efforts to reduce (rather than expand) the possibilities for those who choose the postal service. Its governor has been closing places to deposit votes from a distance, while local authorities tried to keep them open. Yet another peculiarity of the US system: there is no national electoral referee, but the effective organization of any election depends primarily on the States, but in many others on counties and municipalities.
All of this makes it easier for the right to vote to continue to be a subject of constant administrative debate and redesign. One that allows for unimaginable creatives. Because Trump's idea of stigmatizing postal voting can be read precisely as an innovation: when he points out to his base that this format is undesirable, subject to fraud, a plausible effect is that the suggested correlation between voting modality and party is get stronger. Put another way: that, once the elections are over, when Republicans battle State by State, county by county, which votes to count, which ones not, and until when to do so (as happened in the 2000 presidential elections, when Gore lost Florida and the presidency before Bush Jr. by legal means), they can target the vote by mail with the assurance that the result of the suppression will benefit them. Your argument will remain that of fraud. The real odds that a vote by mail will be fraudulent, in light of a Brookings Institution study based on data from the conservative Heritage Foundation focused precisely on the states that have it by default, is something like one in a million.
So it's hard to assume that a genuine concern about fraud is, or ever has been, what truly motivates Trump. Not the whole of the Republican Party.
Subscribe here to newsletter weekly on elections in the United States