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Hank Greenberg: The Pandemic And The Election

In 1864, the nation was deep in the throes of the Civil War, yet incumbent President Abraham Lincoln was determined to go forward with the scheduled election that would decide his fate in the White House. 

“The election was a necessity,” Lincoln said, though he had feared defeat as the young nation engaged in the bloodiest conflict in its history.  He explained: “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”

That moment in history — when America was so deeply divided — arguably provided a compelling case for postponing the election.  But our 16th President would not allow it.  He understood that elections are America’s foundational concept: the means by which we freely govern ourselves. 

Today, another war, this time against an invisible foe, threatens to upend our election system. The upheaval due to the ongoing battle against COVID-19 is already underway.  Fifteen states have postponed their primary elections, as they enforce social distancing to slow the transmission of the virus.  A number are moving to reduce health risks to both voters and poll workers, by expanding vote-by-mail options, given the danger of casting in-person ballots.

Here in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo sensibly postponed the presidential primary from April 28 to June 23.  He has also delayed village, school board and library elections.

In-person voting raises not only public health but also logistical challenges.  One is whether a sufficient number of workers will be available to monitor polling sites.  Another is that traditional polling sites are buildings now closed or restricted for use — such as schools, houses of worship, and nursing homes with vulnerable residents.

Voters themselves have expressed concern over the health risks created by in-person voting.  According to one survey, nearly 70 percent of registered voters said they are in favor of postponing primary elections due to COVID-19, and a majority would not be comfortable heading to the polls in person.

These feelings are shared across the political spectrum.  Rightly so: The virus does not discriminate based on party affiliation.  

In this time of crisis and fear, giving up on democracy is not an option. Voters must not have to choose between disease or democracy, risking their health or exercising a civic duty.

Wisconsin just provided a cautionary tale of what not to do.  The nation watched in horror as the state conducted an in-person election at the height of the pandemic.  Those who wished to cast a ballot were forced to wait on long lines, in some cases greeted by poll workers wearing hazmat suits.

This must not be allowed to occur ever again.

New York must plan now for the viability of the coming November elections.  We must ensure that every eligible voter can cast a ballot safely and securely.

With several of their colleagues testing positive for the coronavirus, New York State lawmakers changed their own rules to allow for remote voting.  So too, they should examine how to change voter rules to meet the challenge of the pandemic for the November election.  Potential solutions may include online voter registration and expanded use of absentee ballots for all registered voters, recognizing that safety and security of the votes cast must also be considered.

In recent years, the Legislature has passed measures intended to make voting more accessible.  There is more to be done in order to maximize participation in the democratic process at this critical time.  

2020 marks an historic landmark for voting rights.  We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the ratification in 1920 of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  It was the largest single act of enfranchisement in American history.  The journey to that watershed moment began right here in New York State, at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. 

In 1917, a full three years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, New York women won the right to vote.  The following year, in the midst of another great epidemic — the “Spanish Flu” — the Empire State helped lead the fight for national women’s suffrage.  Let us not fail to live up to that legacy and tradition today.

The right to vote is the most fundamental right in a democratic society.  It is the right preservative of all other rights.  When citizens elect their representatives, they affirm principles of self-governance and freedom.

Just as with the election of 1864, it is absolutely necessary that the 2020 election be held.  It is imperative, therefore, that the Legislature begin work immediately to ensure voters can safely and securely cast their votes. 

Henry ‘Hank’ Greenberg is president of the New York State Bar Association and is former general counsel for the state Department of Health.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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