It quickly becomes clear when talking with Mary Frances Berry about voting that the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights doesn’t do talking points. Four years ago, as we spoke about her book on the lingering practice of vote-buying — she calls it “Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich” — Berry expressed frustration with the strategy of some of the groups opposing voter-ID laws. As they challenged those laws in court, Berry wondered, wouldn’t it make sense for them to simultaneously help people obtain the newly required IDs?
But that would have likely done harm to their legal argument. If the argument is that the voter ID laws are harmful because a significant and disproportionately Black portion of the population doesn’t have a valid ID, then more people who get IDs, the weaker the argument becomes.
But Berry didn’t care about the legal argument as much as she cared about whether people who wanted to could actually cast a ballot.
In the midst of 2020’s pandemic, as many Americans are demanding a no-questions-asked right to vote by mail, Berry the pragmatist is again putting distance between herself and her more idealistic counterparts. In this case, she’s discouraging voting by mail.
“The post office, as anybody knows who uses snail mail, has been remarkably slow in deliveries and all kinds of things for years,” Berry said. She blames that unreliability on underfunding and not postal workers. But, to her, the reasons for the underperformance are irrelevant. She wants every ballot counted.. “My opinion is people should not vote by mail,” Berry said. “People should not vote by mail unless they just absolutely have no other way.”
I spoke to Berry Monday afternoon, and since then Louisiana Republicans have essentially rendered her point moot. That is, they’ve put forward a plan that doesn’t provide a way for most Louisianians to vote by mail. Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican who said he put together a plan Republican lawmakers would accept, has produced an emergency election plan that allows for people who test positive for COVID-19 — and can prove it with a physician’s sworn statement — to vote by mail.
That’s the plan.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said he won’t sign Ardoin’s proposal because it doesn’t make sufficient accommodations in the middle of a pandemic. But he doesn’t expect Ardoin to change anything, ““Either we’ll have no emergency plan, or the plan will come from the court.”
There’s a wide range of people — beyond those who have tested positive for COVID-19 — who have reason to be concerned about in-person voting: People who have one or more on a list of diseases that includes high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and asthma; people who are caring for people with those conditions or caring for the elderly.
As a kidney transplant recipient, I take multiple immunosuppressants that keep my body from rejecting my new organ but make me more susceptible to infections. But Ardoin’s plan makes no mention of people with weakened immune systems.
The emergency plan that was in effect for the July and August elections allowed people to vote by mail if they were more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of serious medical conditions, if they were under a “medically necessary quarantine or isolation order,” if they’d been advised by a doctor to self-quarantine, if they were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and waiting on a diagnosis to confirm it or if they were caring for somebody under a quarantine order and were, thus, under quarantine themselves.
Berry suggested that people who are afraid to vote in person have a family member (or somebody else they’re sure they can trust) take their ballot to a secure box outside a polling place. But while that might be possible in 42 other states where anybody can get a mail-in ballot for any reason, it’s not possible in Louisiana. Ardoin’s plan says registrars can, if they choose, establish curbside drop-offs of ballots , but if COVID-19 patients are the only ones given special consideration under the state’s emergency plan, then people who are merely concerned about getting sick can’t do as Berry suggests.
At a lengthy and contentious hearing of the Louisiana House Governmental Affairs Committee Tuesday, Rep. Barry Ivey of Central, the only Republican on the committee who voted against Ardoin’s proposal, said, “Can you do anything less in this plan?” Comparing it to the previous emergency plan, Ivey called it “a more complicated plan that accommodates fewer people…and actually puts people’s health in jeopardy.”
Nevertheless, with only Republicans supporting it, the committee voted 8-6 to approve the plan.
Even if Berry is right and voting by mail is too unreliable to inspire confidence, one would have to be especially gullible to believe that that’s the reason Louisiana’s Republicans oppose voting by mail. Minimizing the number of people who vote by making people jump through more hoops to reach the voting booth has become solidified as Republican strategy.
Berry advises voters who encounter obstacles to go around them. Say the president of the United States admits to withholding necessary money from the postal service. Say he chooses a major donor as postmaster general, and that postmaster begins culling the number of mail collection boxes and shutting down the number of mail-sorting machines.
“Yeah, that’s happening,” Berry said. “But my point is that I don’t care what they do. You can bypass all of that. Just because somebody is trying to do something, you don’t have to let it affect you. If they’re trying to do something to us, don’t let ‘em do it.”
Berry is in her 80s and her advice sounds like the counsel that Black elders have historically passed on: Get used to working twice as hard for everything.
But that advice implies that each of us can work twice as hard. That is, it implies all of us are exceptional when, in truth, most of us are average.
Make it hard for people to vote and you automatically reduce the number of people who will. It’s a tried-and-true formula. After all, it couldn’t be called an obstacle if it didn’t impede progress.