On April 7, as people around the world stayed shut inside to avoid spreading or getting the COVID-19 virus, the images out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were shocking and horrifying: Locals, masked and spaced roughly six feet apart, waiting in long, slow-moving lines to vote in the state’s Democratic presidential primary, which also doubled as a crucial election for a state Supreme Court seat.
With nearly 600,000 people, 40% of them Black, Milwaukee is the state’s most racially diverse city—and that day, it had exactly five polling stations, down from the usual 180. Elsewhere in Wisconsin, liberal Madison, whose population of nearly 260,000 is 75% white, had 66 sites; conservative New Berlin, whose population of nearly 40,000 is more than 90% white, had at least seven sites.
Not that anyone should have been out in public voting anyway. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, the state’s Democratic governor, bucking the GOP-led legislature, had delayed in-person voting and extended the deadline to get absentee ballots in until June 9. But then the state’s conservative-majority Supreme Court blocked the governor’s order—and then the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court upheld the block. The conclusion was clear: Most Wisconsinites had to choose between sitting out the election at home or risking getting or spreading the COVID-19 virus to exercise their right to vote.
“It was a tragedy,” says Milwaukee resident Sarah Pearson, who was the Midwest organizer for the New York City–based HIV and homelessness services and advocacy nonprofit Housing Works until recently, when she was among staffers laid off amid sharp revenue cuts to Housing Works due to the COVID-19 shutdown.
Yes, she notes, the Democratic candidate for the state Supreme Court seat won—by a robust 160,000 votes. “But it’s a difficult victory to celebrate because there was nothing small-D democratic about how it was conducted. It wasn’t safe,” she says.
Pearson is not alone among HIV and other progressive activists nationwide who fear that the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is providing a ripe landscape for Republicans to employ a number of tactics to suppress the Democratic vote come November—especially in communities of color—in addition to tactics they have long employed, including onerous voter-ID laws, election roll purges, and gerrymandering.
“Voting is HIV advocacy,” says Carl Baloney, Jr., director of government affairs at the nonpartisan national advocacy group AIDS United. “Vulnerable populations are disproportionately impacted by both COVID and HIV, so they need to engage through voting” so they can collectively demand that “health care is a right, not a privilege, which is something that this country hasn’t yet figured out.”
A great worry is that Republicans, aided by GOP-leaning courts, will block efforts throughout the states to maximize illness-preventing mail-in voting, fearing that it will benefit Democrats in the presidential and countless federal and state down-ballot races.
President Trump, with a typical lack of filter, has voiced that fear openly, saying that widespread mail-in voting would mean that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” However, experts point to data refuting the idea that mail-in voting necessarily benefits Democrats.
Protesting While Distancing
Activists point out that GOP efforts to suppress voting are nothing new, even if the COVID crisis presents fresh opportunities for them.
“The decisions turned out by the Wisconsin and U.S. supreme courts could become a precedent for what could happen in November,” says Pearson. “It’s something we’re going to have to organize around to protect the integrity of the November elections. Wisconsin has already had a huge problem with racist voter suppression with our voter ID laws, and we’re one of the most gerrymandered states in the U.S.
“In 2018,” she continues, “Democrats won all five statewide offices on the ballot, including the Governor’s mansion—but the GOP still maintained a more than 60% majority in the Assembly” due to gerrymandering. “And then they signed into law bills that limited the powers of the incoming Democratic governor.” (GOP chambers have pulled similar moves in other heavily GOP-gerrymandered states, including Michigan and North Carolina.)
She’s not alone among activists who are working overtime figuring out the best way for people to organize and protest against November electoral suppression amid a public-health crisis that has severely limited people’s freedom to gather in the streets and other public places. “You just don’t see people on the left doing crowded, in-person protests the way that the right is right now, protesting against state lockdowns.”
The problem, she says, should not be in convincing a majority to support mail-in ballots; polls show that most Americans already do, even though far more Democrats than Republicans do. “This is a clear case of the government not respecting what people actually want,” she says.
“The challenge will be really getting [advocacy] groups to collaborate on the demand,” she says. “Consistent messaging is going to be important, via people posting videos with coordinated hashtags.” (The main one so far seems to be the simple and straightforward #MailinVoting.)
Says openly HIV-positive New York City activist Jay W. Walker, who is part of several groups including Gays Against Guns and Rise and Resist, “Many activists are going to have to get a lot better at clicktivism. People who get the most retweets on Twitter are not street activists, but those who know how to tweet smartly.” And Twitter, he says, more than Facebook or Instagram, “is where political discourse really happens and is paid heed to by mainstream media and elected officials.
“If we all followed each other on Twitter,” Walker says of the activist community, “we could all get past the 5,000-follower threshold and have a greater reach.”
According to Charles Stephens, who heads the Atlanta gay Black advocacy group The Counter Narrative Project, “Many of us have a political base that we can activate virtually through social media and email lists. We need to lean on those digital strategies even more. It’s going to be a challenge activating people at a time of profound despair when many folks feel disempowered by the forces around us.”
Options for Organizing
As for in-person protests, Pearson says that they should be based on public-health recommendations, which, in the fast-moving COVID crisis, are ever-changing. She says that recent protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which thousands of people spaced themselves out in public places six feet apart, were both visually exciting (shot from above) and respectful of social distancing guidelines.
Meanwhile, at the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy group, “we’ve been extremely nervous that something would happen [with the elections],” says Jennifer Flynn Walker, the group’s senior director of mobilization and advocacy. (Prior, she was a New York City HIV and housing activist for many years.) “We’ve been doing scenario planning even before COVID-19 started, with the assumption that [the vote could be suppressed] and people would need to take to the streets, because when democracy is under attack, the only way to save it is to engage in more democracy.
“But,” she adds, “we weren’t expecting a pandemic where we activists would be the ones arguing that people should stay home.”
Now, says Flynn Walker, the way forward for activists is “extraordinarily tricky ... there is no way out of this epidemic without isolating and distancing, probably for much longer than the [Trump] administration wants us to. So we’re pushing for a range of actions to make elections more participatory.”
The Center for Popular Democracy, she says, has supported efforts to postpone primaries, as well as to postpone the Democratic convention until August. The group had been planning large crowds to “occupy” the Supreme Court throughout June, when a range of high-impact decisions are expected from the court on everything from abortion, electoral law, and LGBT rights to whether Trump must release his tax returns.
But post-COVID, the court intends to hear cases by phone—a major loss of transparency in terms of how the already mysterious judicial body works.
“We’re pivoting to a strategy that organizes as many people as we can online,” says Flynn Walker. “Plus, car protests”—in which people surround a government building or other target while safely quarantined in their vehicles—“are amazing. There’s no other way to have our voices heard right now.”
Even a push for mail-in voting is tricky, she says, because “we’re witnessing the complete collapse of our postal system. It’s intentionally being starved. We don’t want to demand universal mail-in voting and suddenly there’s no mail service. So we’re saying, election-wise, that we need it all. We need election protections. We need people who’ve previously been disenfranchised to get their right to vote reinstated. We need to have more polling sites and to make them spaced-out and safe. We need enough money and resources for poll workers to safely and accurately carry out the election. There’s no reason why this can’t be done.”
Of course, she notes, the best protests “interfere with the daily life of those who have power.” (Think of sit-ins in congressional offices or the “fax jams” of the ACT UP era.) That’s why Flynn Walker likes drive-up protests, where cars often block access to official buildings. Next best thing, she says, are folks taking video of themselves giving short speeches, then everyone tweeting it at once to the same target, making sure to use the same hashtag, with the hopes that media will pick it up.
Another idea she notes, are IRL protests where everyone holds a rope with knots spaced 20 feet away from one another. Also, the New York City-based group Rise and Resist has been taking its “TRUMP LIES ... PEOPLE DIE” banner, with banner holders six feet apart, to various locations around the city, such as in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, doing a quick photo op, then making the photo go viral on social media.
Still, admits Flynn Walker, “It’s been very hard to interfere with the lives of decision-makers” during COVID. On the flip side, “It’s much easier right now to schedule Zoom calls with congressional staffers, because they have less job to do right now, such as shadowing their bosses to events.” In a way, she says, we’ve returned to the era of “the traditional lobby meeting.”
But she also thinks that socially distanced IRL protest will soon have to make a comeback. “We’re being left to die,” she says. “And certainly I can see Trump trying to cancel the election, refusing to leave office, slashing funding to close polling sites. And we’ll have to risk our lives to defend democracy”—even, she adds, in the very possible event that elected officials try to ban IRL protest under a public health pretext.
Will the Courts Intervene?
According to Emma Greenman, the Center for Popular Democracy’s director of voting rights, “Immunocompromised people should be the loudest” when it comes to protesting for both health care and fair elections. “We need their voices and stories, and you can be creative with video and editing. You don’t necessarily have to have 100 people in one place to make a powerful story.”
She urges activists to stay focused, and put pressure, on state and local leadership, who decide most of the details of election processes.
“We can’t let our small-d democratic institutions off the hook,” she says. “GOP legislatures have leaned into a strategy of using the pandemic to supercharge voter suppression. Even though it’s unpopular with voters, they’ve calculated that that’s the only way they can win. In Wisconsin, they didn’t even have a good argument against delaying or allowing mail-in voting. You’ve seen this happening in states like Georgia and Texas for decades.”
But now, says Greenman, states to watch for suppressive tactics include—in addition to Wisconsin—Arizona, Minnesota, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
“Many of them have Democratic governors but really aggressive Republican legislatures,” she says. “And they can pull what happened in Georgia in 2018, where a thousand small administrative hurdles to voting were piled on top of each other, basically creating Jim Crow 2.0. We have to stop thinking that the federal courts will come in and save us on this, because they’re not going to. They have the most power when it comes to discrimination around race and national origin under the 14th Amendment.”
But, she says, a million small administrative cuts to voting are harder for courts to take on.
“In Milwaukee,” she says, “they just didn’t have the staff and judges [to stand up many polling sites], and that’s going to happen in a lot of places.” For Illinois’ Democratic primary on March 17, she says, in-person voting at her grandmother’s nursing home was canceled due to COVID. “They told a bunch of 90-year-olds to go to a website to find out where they could vote.”
Any number of technical disputes on voting could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, says Greenman. “There’s going to be a lot of cases where the system breaks down and voters say, ‘I was never mailed a ballot’ or ‘My polling site didn’t open.’ I don’t have a lot of confidence that the Supreme Court will rule fairly, especially after their Wisconsin ruling.
“And,” she adds, “I don’t know for sure if you could sue in advance of elections if, say, the Minnesota legislature refuses to act [to make voting maximally accessible]. It’s going to be hard to get court action before elections take place, because you’re trying to sue on something where it’s not clear what it’s going to look like until November.”
Right now, says Greenman, people need to be writing letters to editors and social-media posts demanding that Congress pass legislation to fully fund state elections. Bills exist in both chambers to fund this up to $4 billion, to make sure that states send everyone a mail-in ballot—and also that they stand up a sufficient number of IRL polling sites. “Right now, states don’t have the money to do this alone,” she says.
People also need to be reaching out to their governors and state lawmakers, demanding that everyone has a ballot mailed to them—and that states recruit young people to staff IRL polling sites, possibly with hazard pay, because sites are usually staffed by people over 60 who are now especially vulnerable to COVID.
All in all, a grim forecast for November? “Yes,” admits Greenman. “But we’ve seen from states who’ve been waging election suppression battles a long time that the answer is people across the spectrum showing outrage and demanding this as a priority. We’ll come out the other side if everyone stands up and says, ‘Anyone who gets in the way of my vote won’t get my vote.’”