Friday News Roundup — April 10, 2020

Nonpartisan Voting By Mail; The Pandemic & Our Society; COVID in Russia; Plus News You May Have Missed

A good morning to you from Washington, D.C., as life continues with the pandemic, we also wish the best for Passover and Holy Week for those celebrating, alongside the signs that spring is returning. The COVID-19 pandemic continues, and toll continues to climb. On the immediate response, there is agreement that more must be done to support small businesses and the growing numbers of unemployed, but a brief pro forma session of the Senate demonstrated that differences between the parties remain.

At the same time, the debate between measures for public health versus economic reopening have grown increasingly contentious. This week, CSPC’s Dan Mahaffee and Michael Farr of Farr Miller Washington Investment Counsel combined their political and financial expertise to explain why economic recovery can only happen when health and safety are put first.

This week, Chris starts off with a look at the controversy over voting by mail and why Americans of all parties should support safe, fair, and accessible elections. Dan looks at the lens this pandemic holds up to society. Joshua looks at how the viral outbreak is downplayed and managed in Russia. As always, we close with news you may have missed.

Voting By Mail Is Not Partisan

Chris Condon

Photo Credit: Chris Phan, Wikimedia Commons

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked many conversations nationwide, including on the viability of our medical supply chains and the federal government’s level of responsibility in a national crisis such as this. One ongoing conversation that has simply been accelerated, however, is the debate over conducting America’s elections by mail. Although the issue has been considered at various points over the past decade, two incidents this week caused flare ups in particular: Wisconsin’s primary elections and related comments by President Trump. The president’s comments in particular took aim at voting by mail; during a press briefing, he asserted that absentee voting is especially prone to voter fraud. In a tweet, the president also later opined that voting by mail “for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

In truth, the president’s argument invokes worn out claims that simply do not stand up to any level of scrutiny. First, there is no evidence that widespread voter fraud occurs at all, let alone in elections conducted by mail. I covered this issue briefly two weeks ago, pointing out that states which have implemented elections by mail have also taken care to implement multiple security and verification measures when ballots are received. Conversely, in-person voting often lacks basic security measures, with some electronic machines vulnerable to tampering and many jurisdictions eschewing a paper trail for votes cast in-person. Nationwide, multiple studies have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Although there are cases of fraud in elections by mail (such as that in North Carolina’s 9th district in 2018), such examples are few and far between. Even the commission that President Trump himself formed to study voter fraud found no evidence of significant illicit activity and was disbanded in 2018.

Next comes the claim that voting by mail is a ploy to disadvantage Republican candidates. I also touched on this issue two weeks ago, when I pointed out that multiple Republican states (such as Arizona and Utah) have instituted either partial or total mail-in voting in recent years. Expanding on this, every state in the union allows at least some voters to cast their ballots through the mail. Five states conduct all of their elections completely by mail (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington); California, Nebraska, and North Dakota each allow counties to conduct elections completely by mail if they so choose. A multitude of states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Washington, DC) all allow any voter to request an absentee ballot without a reason. It is evident that widespread mail-in voting is already present in much of the country, regardless of partisan lean or geographical orientation.

In fact, the states that do require an excuse to vote by absentee ballot are also spread across the political spectrum. About two thirds are generally Republican states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia), but the other third are northeastern Democratic strongholds (Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York). This means that just as state support for voting by mail crosses the aisle, the shrinking group of opponents does as well.

While state governments are useful in this exercise, they are hardly the only measure of mail-in voting’s nonpartisan nature. Top state and local election officials from both parties have requested additional funds to implement absentee voting procedures in the wake of COVID-19. Even in Georgia, a generally Republican state recently at the center of a debate over voter suppression, is sending absentee ballot applications to all of its citizens for upcoming elections. 71 percent of Americans, including supermajorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans, support the introduction of mail-in ballots to make elections safer for voters. Conservative policy organizations including the American Enterprise Institute have recently called for increased ballot accessibility, including elections conducted by mail. Especially during the crisis we currently face, voting by mail is decidedly nonpartisan.

The consequences of a stubborn refusal to implement common sense election reforms was made painfully evident by Wisconsin’s elections held this week. While the mayors of the state’s 10 largest cities asked the Wisconsin state legislature to postpone the elections scheduled for this week due to the risk of COVID-19, the Republican-led legislature flatly refused. Although GOvernor Tony Evers issued an executive order postponing the election, it was soon overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The legislature made no allowances for expanded mail-in voting, and voters were forced to either forsake their right to political participation or risk coronavirus exposure. Even if one did choose to head to the polls, only 5 of Milwaukee’s 180 designated polling stations were open on election day. Such circumstances are unacceptable in any race, let alone one that will decide a seat on the state’s supreme court.

While it may be politically convenient for figures such as President Trump to dismiss voting by mail, it does the people of the United States a great disservice. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, reviving the tired, debunked arguments of absentee voting’s “partisan nature” or some vague threat of voter fraud is unbecoming of the nation’s highest office. By the way, President Trump himself voted by mail in the 2018 midterms and just last month. Let that be instructive in considering this question moving forward.

Politics & Parables in the Time of Pandemic

Dan Mahaffee

A Saganaw, MI, soup kitchen adapting to drive-up service. Photo Credit: WEYI NBC 25

It is often said a crisis holds up a lens to society, magnifying its breakdowns while also shining light on its heroes. A pandemic, perhaps, provides an even greater perspective, for as it first strikes, literally no one is immune to its effects. The COVID-19 virus does not care about your wealth, nor your status or political persuasion when it attacks your body. Yet, as this crisis unfolds, we are beginning to see just what this pandemic has revealed about our society.

FIrst, there is the fact that data from Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, Baltimore, and other cities affected by the virus demonstrates a disproportionate impact from the disease on communities of color. Yes, the disease does not discriminate about which set of lungs it finds, but this data tells us of shortcomings of care in our society — often along racial lines. Before this pandemic, experts already knew of the divides in healthcare outcomes in this country due to race. Even if the coronavirus is blind to race, evidence suggests that the worst cases come from complications related to diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and underlying health factors.

Before the pandemic crisis though, experts were sounding the alarm about how divergent the health care outcomes were for communities of color, as well as rural Americans. These studies would show that healthcare outcomes were not only related to access to care, but also “education, employment, income, and family and social support.” Lack of consistent care, distance to healthcare providers, and access to information all weighed on how communities were able to take care of themselves and access care. With the pandemic now moving through urban areas, but also spreading into rural America, the divergence in the death toll and the background of those affected reflects shortcomings in our system that existed long before this disease arrived on our shores.

We also can look at the burden on those considered essential workers, along with those on the “front lines” of our healthcare system. For many in this country, the last five years have been the best time to keep their nativism on full display. However, we now depend on a workforce — from farm workers to warehouse staff, from grocery stockers to delivery drivers — to keep America fed and basic commerce continuing to function. In California alone, it is estimated that 1/3rd of these “essential workers” are immigrants. In our healthcare system, already straining for lack of doctors and nurses, 1/6th of the workforce are immigrants. In Britain, where anti-immigrant sentiment and nativism played no small part in fueling Brexit, the first eight NHS doctors to die from coronavirus, contracted while caring for patients, were immigrants.

Finally, there is the disproportionate impact the disease is having on the U.S. prison population. Rikers Island, Cook County Jail, and other notorious sites have become hotspots for the disease. What does this tell us about how we’ve viewed corrections in our society? What does it show about the “tough on crime” policies that seem to forswear forgiveness and redemption for the sake of punitive measures. Now, we see how the incarcerated, their guards, and the communities surrounding them have become vulnerable to the disease.

This disease is now telling us much about our society and its shortcomings. It also tells us of the heroes addressing this crisis. In Chicago, for example, look at an organization like The Night Ministry, who have provided healthcare to the poor, homeless, and the most vulnerable. As its CEO, Paul Hamann said, “During these challenging times, [our] mission has not and will not change. Our organization is called to provide housing, health care, and human connection to the poor and homeless. That is it. Period. We will not waver from this mission.” Look also to at the public defenders and attorneys working to get non-violent offenders released from jail or to have punitive bail reduced, as well as the governors and other public officials willing to take action so that no stint in jail or prison should risk becoming a death sentence.

For those celebrating Holy Week, but indeed for all of us, the words of Matthew 25:34–40 should ring especially true:

Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”

Then the upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?”

And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”

COVID Catching Up in Moscow

Joshua Huminski

Municipal tankers spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus in Moscow on Sunday. Most of Russia’s COVID-19 cases have been recorded in Moscow.

While Moscow sought to create the appearance that COVID was under control and not that serious of an issue, it appears that the virus is eroding that façade. Russia officially topped 10,000 COVID cases on Thursday, with Moscow reporting the majority of the infected. On Thursday alone, nearly 1,500 new cases were reported, a record thus far for the country.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, announced an extension to the “non-working week” through 30 April in response to the sharp increase in cases. In a statement from the Kremlin, he added that wages would be preserved and that he was devolving some authorities to the regional governments to managed the COVID response.

The devolution of authorities is not surprising as there had, according to NPR, been growing resentment in some regions about the one-size-fits-all approach to quarantine and social distancing measures. Russia is, nearly twice the size of the United States, covers 11 time zones, and has 46 oblasti (provinces), 21 republics, and a diversity of other administrative units. Not all regions have yet had a COVID case and the regional governments were increasingly chafing at the strict restrictions issued from Moscow, which has the preponderance of cases at the moment. As noted by Putin, “”There are regions where not a single case of the disease has been identified, although there are fewer of them as time goes on.”

While the Kremlin may be allowing more leeway for the oblasti, there is still a tight leash. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin warned the regional leaders “not to confuse regional with federal authority.”

Earlier in the week, Russia’s parliament approved severe penalties for violating the quarantine rules and, ironically, for spreading false information related to COVID. In the case of the former, individuals could be fined up to 300,000 rubles ($4,800) if the violation results in death, while public officials could be fined 1 million rubles ($13,580). For spreading misinformation, if the act results in death, an individual could be imprisoned for up to five years and fined 2 million rubles ($27,180). Presumably these penalties are only for misinformation spread within Russia, and not those involved in the global disinformation campaign.

Russia’s response to the COVID crisis has been slow to date, but now appears to be picking up speed. The question is whether or not it is too little too late, and how Putin will weather the impact of the crisis if it snowballs.

It was not until the end of January that significant measures such as closing the border with China were taken, and while Russians returning from overseas were required to be tested, domestic testing was woefully inadequate. At one point there was only one lab in Siberia able to conduct the testing. Moscow is rolling out a $25 home test kit that will be dispatched to the regions shortly, according to reports.

Finally, in March, the intensive social-distancing protocols and stay-at-home orders were issued, at a time when the government was downplaying the impact of the virus. Like many other areas, the week-long vacation and work stoppage orders resulted in Muscovites and other Russians going out in public, thus undermining some of the efficacy of the distancing measures.

At the same time, Russia is playing chicken with Saudi Arabia on oil prices. At an OPEC meeting in March, Saudi Arabia proposed cutting production in response to declining global demand by 1 million barrels per day, with Russia (a non-OPEC participant) making a 500,000 barrel per day cut. The hope was prices would remain elevated despite the decrease in demand. Russia decided to go against the plan hoping, according to some analysts, to crush U.S. shale oil production. In response, Saudi Arabia — for whom oil is much more entwined with civil and regime stability — cut export prices.

By contrast, Russia has a much more well-developed commercial oil industry and Putin is less directly affected by the price wars. He is, however, reliant on the subservience of the “oligarchs” wealthy, well-connected Russians, who derive their riches from formerly state-owned enterprises and natural resources. Should the economy underperform or experience the effects of the almost certain global recession, his domestic political stability may be in question.

Putin will, regardless, craft the message that he is, or will be, the hero of the crisis. By devolving some of the authorities to the regions, he’s putting the onus on them for any failures; the successes will be Putin’s own. At the same time, he will need to ensure that the situation is well handled and Russia as a whole, weathers the crisis. It remains to be seen how widespread the pandemic is in Russia and what the full impact is for the country.

News You May Have Missed

One Virus, Two Very Different Experiences

Aida Olivas

As large cities and many states around the country have taken the initiative of issuing stay-at-home orders, there are other areas in the nation that have yet to do so; one such place is Arkansas. Despite the state having 625 cases and 10 deaths to date, the governor has refused to implement the stay-at-home order. Small, rural towns have been significantly less affected by the virus as many have continued with their lives as normally as possible. A small town in Arkansas, Des Arc, revealed stores were still open for business and people from all industries were still going to work. Slight accommodations have been made to comply with CDC guidelines as much as possible, but states with sparse populations, such as Arkansas, South Dakota, and Wyoming have attempted to prioritize the continuation of the economy as much as possible. While geography has played a role in how people and communities react with the virus, politics has also been important. States with Democratic and moderate Republican leaders have focused on trying to stop the spread of the virus, while conservative Republican governors have either wholly refused to issue the order or have only implemented it for certain areas of their states. Despite this, more and more people living in rural areas have begun to take matters into their own hands by suspending dine-in services at their restaurants or implementing a rotation of staff members at their businesses to reduce unnecessary, in-person contact with others.

Who Is Boris Johnson’s Stand In, Dominic Raab?

Aida Olivas

With the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister currently battling for his own health after being diagnosed with Coronavirus, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Dominic Raab, has been appointed as a Johnson’s temporary replacement. Well known in a small Westminster bubble of high level politicians, Raab is someone little known otherwise. As a strong Brexit supporter, the few who recognize his name in public usually have unfavorable viewpoints of him and he has been characterized as being very uncharismatic when speaking to the media. Despite the negativity surrounding his name, he has been noted as someone who is highly capable of dealing with the current chaos the virus has created, albeit leaving any ultimate final decisions to the prime minister himself. Raab’s focus of finding solutions to maintain the country running has brought forth praises and criticisms from his colleagues. His high level of intellect and dedication to making decisions that will benefit the county with minimal media influence have been greatly appreciated. However, with his wooden personality and “black and white” viewpoints, politicians who work with him have expressed concern about him being a long-term stand in because the position requires him “to be flexible…remain dynamic…remain open”, all things members of the British government believe he will not be able to fulfill easily.

West Virginia Briefly Allows Betting on Politics

Wyatt Newsome

In a historic but short-lived move, the West Virginia Lottery began posting odds and offering bets on political races, making them the first state to ever do so. However, lottery officials shut down the system after only an hour after concerns from the Governor and Secretary of State, the latter of which citing an 1868 state law against betting on elections. In the odds posted, President Trump was a slim favorite over Democrat challenger Joe Biden. West Virginia is also a pioneer in other forms of betting, as one of only thirteen states to have legalized sports betting. This has occurred in the state since the SCOTUS decision in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association (2018).

European Union Overturns Poland’s Judicial Disciplinary Panel

Wyatt Newsome

On Wednesday, the European Union Court of Justice ruled that Poland must strike a 2019 law that would result in fines or termination for judges found to be participating in political activity. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party utilized the law as a tactic in their continued strategy to gain political power and remove judicial independence. However, government officials have questioned the validity of the ruling and have expressed uncertain signals as to whether or not they will abide by the decision. EU officials have previously not sought out sanctions against Poland, such as removal of voting rights through Article 7, as Hungary would be expected to veto such a measure. Nevertheless, observers such as the Polish Supreme Court have theorized that Poland’s slide towards illiberal democracy and continued feuds with the EU could result in them leaving the EU, whether or not by choice.

The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.



Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress

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