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It’s time for Democrats to start playing hard ball against the GOP’s threat to the 2020 election

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Democracy is on the line, and the Democratic Party must stand up for its namesake.

On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters will be called to vote in one of the most disgraceful and flat-out dangerous electoral shams this country has seen in recent history. Despite the efforts of the Democratic governor to delay the vote and a federal court to extend the deadline for turning in absentee ballots — many of which may not arrive at voters’ homes by election day — Wisconsin residents will be expected to case their ballots Tuesday amid a pandemic or forever hold their peace. Howls about the injustice of asking people to vote in person during such a perilous time, and while the state is under a stay-at-home order, have gone unheeded by the Republican state legislature, the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court, or the Republican-controlled U.S. Supreme Court.

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This is a terrible day for Democracy in Wisconsin, especially since a seat on the state supreme court is on the line. But it’s also a terrible omen for November 2020, when control of the entire U.S. federal government will be up for grabs.

Republicans have proven, over and over, that they don’t care about Americans’ health. They don’t care about the right to vote. All they care about is keeping their grip on power.

President Donald Trump is more forthright about this than most. He recently dismissed Democrats’ calls to empower the whole country to vote by mail in 2020 based only on the fact that it would cause Republicans to lose.

“The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump said of provisions Democrats wanted in the recent coronavirus crisis legislation. “They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

But it’s not just Trump. It’s been clear for years the entire Republican Party has favored voter suppression measures to make it hard for people to get to the polls, disproportionately impacting Democratic voters and bolstering the GOP’s electoral fortunes. So when Democrats pushed for universal voting by mail for 2020 — a completely sensible option in a pandemic, and a proven tactic in several U.S. states already — it was no surprise that Republican lawmakers balked.

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Democrats caved. But they must not cave a second time.

Wisconsin is showing us just how bad this could get. Republicans are literally toying with the lives of Wisconsin voters because they think its in their electoral interests. With the stakes much high in November, there’s no predicting what kinds of stunts they’ll pull.

It’s possible, of course, that the coronavirus crisis will have largely passed by November, and we’ll only have to worry about the usual slate of GOP voter suppression tactics. But we can’t be confident this will be the case, and the dangers of a pandemic — which experts fear could surge again in the fall — amplifies the potential for anti-democratic sabotage.

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But Democrats have leverage now. It seems clear at this point that the $2.2 trillion recovery package passed by Congress will not be enough to sufficiently soften the blow the economy is taking. By all rights, Congress should pass another recovery bill.

To do that, Republicans will need Democratic votes. But they should refuse to play along unless the legislation includes nationwide vote-by-mail.

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Normally, I would be loath to advocate these tactics. I think gamesmanship in politics is extremely dangerous, and the GOP has normalized taking dangerous risks with the debt ceiling and government shutdowns that I do not think Democrats should emulate. And I genuinely believe the American people deserve a government that passes bills that are in the national interest without always seeing them as leverage to advance partisan ends.

But as dangerous as gamesmanship is, and as needed as more recovery funds are, the GOP threat to the electoral process is severe. And note that, as I explained, it’s not just a threat to the right to vote; it’s a threat to human life, as forcing people to vote during a pandemic literally puts people at risk of catching a lethal infection.

If the GOP were to hold on to power in 2020 because a pandemic was plausibly seen as suppressing wide swaths of the electorate — especially Democratic-leaning urban areas, where polling places are typically crowded — it would be truly cataclysmic for the integrity of our system of government. For Trump to be able to fail so completely in his job as president by letting a pandemic run wild, but then to win precisely because of the damage the pandemic caused, would be a historic injustice. It would also be so facially illegitimate that it could lead to unrest.

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So the stakes are high. And Democrats have real leverage. It’s not guaranteed that the pandemic will be a major influence on how people can get to the polls in November, but it’s undoubtedly true that the government’s response to the pandemic and the resulting economic calamity will play a major role in determining how people will vote. So if Democrats hold their ground, and refuse to pass any more recovery bills without adequate vote-by-mail provisions, they’ll put Republicans in a tight spot. Republicans will resist any effort to expand voting access, but they may also get desperate for additional legislation to support the economy. With a Republican in the White House, they know their party is most likely to get blamed if the economy is still in crisis by November.

There are risks to this strategy, of course. Republicans might successfully demonize Democrats’ tactics and win the messaging war. But no political strategy is without risks. And given the threat to American democracy, this should be a risk that is well worth taking.

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