Look Me in the Eye and Tell Me Voter ID in the Time of COVID Isn’t Absurd

A voter wears a full face chemical shield to protect against the spread of coronavirus, as he votes Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Janesville, Wisconsin.Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette/AP

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Despite most of the country being under lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Wisconsin is going ahead with in-person voting today. The state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who defeated Scott Walker in the 2018 midterms, tried to delay the election and switch to absentee voting, but he was stymied by the GOP majority in the state legislature, the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court, and even the US Supreme Court. So Wisconsinites who didn’t request an absentee ballot in time will have to trek to a physical polling location—which is certain to be more crowded than usual because the state has sharply reduced the number of polling places, given the pandemic.

Back when Scott Walker was in charge, Republicans implemented a host of voting restrictions and gerrymandered the state so thoroughly that a federal court said the redrawn maps violated the voting rights of Democrats. As my colleague Ari Berman wrote in 2017, those anti-democratic measures might have been the pivotal factor that tipped the state to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Those voting restrictions are still on the books, and their absurdity is only heightened in the age of social distancing, as Tuesday’s election shows.

On Sunday, Madison, the state’s second-largest city, put out a guidance for how the election would unfold, including urging voters to keep a safe six feet apart and assuring them that it’s okay for them to bring their own pens. The city offers a quasi-drive-thru voting system for people with underlying health issues, allowing them to get a ballot at the curb, but certain precautions must be observed: “Crack your window open just enough to receive your ballot from the poll workers.”

But the instructions for enforcing the voter ID restrictions are the most, um, eye-catching. “Poll workers have been instructed to verify the identity of a voter wearing a facemask by comparing the eyes in the voter’s ID to the eyes of the voter before them. Poll workers should not ask voters to remove their facemasks.”

Instances of the kind of in-person fraud that would be caught by voter ID laws are vanishingly low in normal circumstances, and it’s even harder to fathom people choosing to subject themselves to repeated exposure at a polling place during a pandemic. But the laws, which disenfranchise Black voters at far higher rates than their white counterparts, still exist, forcing poor poll workers to stare deeply into voters’ eyes to assess if it’s truly them in their ID.

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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