Can a virus stir a contagious spirit of democratic defiance in a nation? (That’s a small “d,” folks.) And might that spirit overcome the obstacles to voting to which it is also contributing?
Mull those questions with me, please, as the remainder of this momentous year unfolds in these pandemic-stricken United States. And join me in rooting for deepening determination to cast ballots this fall, come hell or high infection rates.
Warnings about vote suppression have become the stuff of daily news reports. Particularly worrisome (and offensive to this daughter of a South Dakota postmaster) are apparent attempts to hamper the timely delivery of the U.S. mail. But that’s far from the only way to screw up an election. In just the last half-year, Americans have seen primary elections postponed, polling places closed and consolidated, voting equipment and software “improvements” botched, and safe voting by mail discouraged by the occupant of the highest office in the land.
But almost as often of late have come cues for voters to insist on exercising their constitutionally promised franchise, and signs that those messages will be heeded.
The most tangible of the latter came in last week’s Minnesota primary. Even in the state that regularly leads the nation in voter turnout, it was striking to see more than 912,000 votes cast for a turnout percentage of nearly 23%, the highest since 1994, when both parties had lively gubernatorial primaries.
Those numbers suggest that there’s been little abatement of the civic intensity seen in Minnesota in 2018. In that nonpresidential year, total turnout topped 64% and approached presidential-election levels in some parts of the state.
Recent weeks have delivered plenty of reminders about voting’s importance. Take this month’s observances of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Accounts of that history have stressed the steel of suffragists who marched through hostile crowds, endured forced feeding during hunger strikes, and suffered brutality at the hands of police as they insisted that the vote was rightfully theirs. Those women pioneered American-style mass protest for civic change. I love the spunk in the line from the trailer for the wonderful new PBS documentary “The Vote”: “Women weren’t given anything. We took it.”
Then — as President Donald Trump was tweeting daily about the risks of voting by mail, the very method he uses himself — U.S. Rep. John Lewis died. The 80-year-old Georgia congressman’s passing occasioned days of remembrance of the personal price a young Lewis paid on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 in a quest to secure the vote for people of color.
Lewis’s heroism led to congressional enactment a few months later of the Voting Rights Act — which the U.S. Supreme Court largely gutted in 2013. That latter development may have gone unnoticed by many Americans seven years ago. It’s in the spotlight it warrants now.
Similarly hard to ignore are the going-viral videos produced this year by the Lincoln Project, the former GOP operatives who aim to help defeat Trump. Those hard-hitting commercials come from master political spinmeisters who formerly directed their firepower at Democrats. Their targets now are “Trump and Trumpism,” which means more than a few Republican U.S. senators are in their sights.
The Lincoln Project ad that got my attention is “We Will Vote.” It casts voting as a quintessentially American act of defiance against those who would thwart democracy. Suffragists, civil rights marchers, John Lewis himself are all there as the ad invites voters to choose “America or Trump.”
Chelle Stoner, the Minnesota co-chair of the bipartisan political action group No Labels, is a volunteer Lincoln Project fundraiser in this state. She reports that the project has raised more than $550,000 from more than 5,500 Minnesota donors, and that it is preparing a volunteer-intensive ground game as well as ad wars this fall. Those numbers suggest that Never-Trump Republicans are more than an insignificant fringe group in this state. It also says that not all Republicans — and certainly not all in Minnesota — are keen to play vote suppression games this year.
Stoner and I speculated about whether the pandemic itself acts as a spur to voting.
“Here we are, all locked up. Everyone is at home and wanting to do something to try to steady the ship,” she said. “There’s a big desire to tie this boat down before it topples.” She thinks the Lincoln Project is succeeding because it invites anyone, regardless of party, to participate in its work.
Voting itself is like that, especially in a state that makes voting easy with Election Day registration, as Minnesota has done for nearly a half-century. Voting affords many benefits to a people, not least a healthy sense of control over their shared lives.
That sense is being eroded as the nation’s COVID death tally climbs and its economic devastation mounts. But my hunch is that the events of 2020 are also making the right to vote more precious, and the desire to vote more intense. In times of trouble, we small-d democrats hold fast the words of John Lewis: “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.” My money is on a big turnout on Nov. 3.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and author. Her latest book is “Turnout: Making Minnesota the State That Votes,” by Joan Anderson Growe with Lori Sturdevant, released this month by Minnesota Historical Society Press. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.