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Voter suppression goes viral 

Among all the "did-he-just-say-that?" moments triggered by the words that come out of the mouth of our commander in chief, Donald Trump's March 30 chat with Fox & Friends stands out.

Trump was voicing alarm over Democrats' proposal to include funding in the coronavirus stimulus package to help states adapt their election systems to the crisis by expanding options for vote-by-mail, early voting, and online registration. "The things they had in there were crazy," he said. "They had things, levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."

Just to make sure his meaning was clear to all, a week later he tweeted that voting by mail "for whatever reason, doesn't work out well for Republicans."

And just to make sure the president's meaning was clear to the president, the Washington Post headlined: "Trump just comes out and says it: The GOP is hurt when it's easier to vote."

It should probably come as no surprise that the preferred electoral environment of someone who lost the popular vote by 3 million votes is one in which voting is made as difficult as possible. But the spectacle of the Republican Party carrying its historical fondness for voter suppression into a pandemic is still appalling.

Wisconsin's recent primary election was both a low point and a high point in that history. The state's Republican Party got a court ruling overturned that would have allowed Wisconsin to take the sensible course of postponing the election, and forced its citizens to risk their lives and turn out in long lines to exercise their right to vote.

Then all five Republican appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court joined in, refusing to extend Wisconsin's deadline for absentee ballots by six days. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent from the ruling, noted that the many absentee voters who had not yet received their ballots either "will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others' safety, or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own."

That low point was immediately followed by a high point: The vote suppression strategy backfired in spectacular fashion when that election resulted in a Trump-backed state Supreme Court judge, an odds-on favorite to retain his seat by a comfortable margin, was swept out of office in a wave of voter outrage, the first time in 12 years that an incumbent on the state court lost his seat to a challenger.

It was an instance of voter suppression that had an outcome precisely the opposite of the one intended. But we can't pretend that this means the problem will now go away. As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune wrote last November:

"Ever since the Supreme Court seriously weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, we've seen a barrage of new laws aimed at keeping people from voting. Between 2016 and 2018, 17 million voters were purged from the rolls. These new laws are sometimes presented as innocuous bureaucratic initiatives. But make no mistake: They're just as racist and undemocratic as the poll taxes of the Jim Crow South.

"These 21st-century voter-suppression tactics increase the likelihood that communities will be represented by someone who doesn't actually represent their values or needs, who won't fight for them in Congress, and won't be accountable to them. They decrease voters' power, which increases the influence of wealthy donors and big corporations. And they overwhelmingly disenfranchise African Americans, Latinos, young people, college students, women, and the disabled."

This is a big part of the reason why the Democracy Initiative was formed by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Communications Workers of America, and the NAACP in 2012. Looking back, it was an act of remarkable foresight.

Trump's way-too-candid admission on Fox & Friends came after Mitch McConnell and friends slashed the proposed inclusion of at least $2 billion to help states administer elections during a national crisis as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill.

The $400 million that the Senate allowed in the stimulus bill is 20 percent of the minimum amount needed to address the problem of how people can safely vote in a pandemic. The Democracy Initiative, now consisting of 55 organizations, is continuing to push for the full funding necessary to protect the right to vote.

As NAACP President Derrick Johnson put it, "We should not be forced to choose between our health and our vote. Congress must significantly increase funding to states so they may adopt a variety of measures to administer elections in a safe and accessible manner. Failing to protect our democracy is not an option in this critical election year."

If you'd like to help ensure that elections feature the highest level of access to voters and the highest levels of turnout, and that their outcomes contain the highest amount of democracy, please join us at sierraclub.org/readytovote, #ReadyToVote. Δ

Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through clanham@newtimesslo.com or write a letter to the editor and email it to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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