Tocqueville and Voting by Mail in a Pandemic

11 August 2020

This entry was the co-winner in our spring-summer Blogging Democracy Contest. We asked University of Chicago undergraduates whether Tocqueville was right to describe national elections as moments of great “agitation.” Below is Carissa Kumar’s reply.


Between the Black Lives Matter protests and the crippling COVID-19 pandemic, the United States is entering a key election year in a state of social upheaval. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville himself noted the social chaos that precedes presidential elections, which sends the nation into “a feverish state” with “agitation more lively and more widespread.” Tocqueville was not thinking of racial reckoning, nor of our ongoing lockdown cycles, but he did show a concern for the pre-election political frenzy. Today, the ability to trust that all Americans can safely participate in free elections should be a source of steadiness in an uncertain time. Widespread access to mail-in ballots can provide a bedrock in this year’s chaos.


Tocqueville recognized the association between power and corruption and may have seen vote-by-mail efforts as an opportunity for fraud and incompetence. Plenty of today’s politicians have warned voters about fraud, not least President Trump, who says the upcoming election will have the potential to be “the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history.” But Tocqueville’s concern differs from Trump’s in an important respect: Tocqueville worried about the character of the electorate. Tocqueville underscored just how unusual America’s situation was in comparison to the rest of the Western world, noting that in America, “power resides in the national representation.” Public opinion, driven by unreflective citizens, could dominate the government, and politicians eager for power could flatter uninformed opinions to satisfy the public. Participatory democracy, left unregulated, could not be trusted to work in its own best interest.


In contrast, twenty-first-century criticisms of mail-in voting tend to focus on matters of method. Arguments center on accusations of fraud rather than voter ignorance. But fraud arguments are poorly substantiated; recent data suggests that rates of voter fraud are so low as to be inconsequential. More immediate concerns are the legacy of racist voting restrictions and logistical challenges related to quickly increasing vote-by-mail operations due to the pandemic. The US has an obligation to ensure all voters have access to the polls, and with the COVID-crisis continuing, vote-by-mail policies can offer the sense of order that the 2020 presidential election badly needs. Mail-in ballots can expand the ease and predictability of voting. They accommodate not only those who are at-risk for illness but also those who are otherwise occupied at work, who are away at school, or who are busy with care-taking tasks that make traveling to the polls difficult or impossible.


We should take care not to repeat the scenes from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania’s primary seasons. Despite a series of emergency legal challenges, both states held elections in the midst of stay-at-home orders. A sharp decline in volunteers resulted in only five operational polling stations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and voting lines were predictably long and slow. A deluge in vote-by-mail requests overwhelmed state election offices, and many voters received their ballots after the deadline.


Although individual states manage most election procedures, the federal government has not remained silent on the issue. The Democratic House majority has proposed requiring all states make absentee ballots available during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Supreme Court has also weighed in. The Court will not force Texas, which currently requires voters to submit a valid disability excuse before they can vote by mail, to make mail-in ballots universally available. Texas’s attorney general has declared that the risk of contracting the virus is not a valid reason to request a mail-in ballot, leaving the risks of in-person voting intact as the virus spreads further. However, Oregon and Utah, where voters receive mail-in ballots as a matter of course, are entering election season on a more stable footing. It is indeed possible to conduct a presidential election while maintaining social distancing practices and protecting public health.


Tocqueville’s worries about the sway of uneducated public opinion remain relevant. Democracy depends on informed citizens and a participatory public. But the contemporary American political system empowers a range of legal specialists, diplomats, scientists and engineers—both elected and appointed—who are divided across different spheres of the federal system. Our government is not beholden to unfiltered opinion, even if presidential elections are more “direct” than in the past.  Today’s electorate demands open access and engagement in the political system. This was made clear in the campaign for women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement, and the current Black Lives Matter movement has restated the importance of political participation that incorporates all citizens. Civic education and productive public discourse remain vital, but we need to ensure accessible elections across the whole country.


Tocqueville describes the lead-up to a presidential election as tense. It’s a “river…overflowed,” a rising “storm.” In spite of an indirect electoral process, the whole nation is engaged in the process of finding, discussing, and evaluating possible presidential candidates. The moment America chooses its next president is a moment of conflict, and everyone has a stake in reckoning with the previous four years and expressing a preference for the next term. Our election holds hopes, fears, and profound socio-political disagreements, just as the previous one did. But this time, we must figure out how to cast our votes within the context of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of this writing, 159,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19. In this pandemic-stricken moment, the election seems at once trivial and momentous, as everyone projects their own meaning and lives onto the future election. We are all grasping for a sense of control in the midst of uncertainty.


Vote-by-mail provides a way of situating our current crisis within the familiar activity of democratic voting and successfully adapting old processes to present challenges. At a time when so many people are discussing how to break down constructed class and racial barriers in America, a broad and accessible election is more important than ever. In this critical moment and until citizens can safely meet face-to-face, vote by mail becomes crucial to upholding and preserving participatory democracy.



Photo Credit: Daria Nepriakhina via Unsplash

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