When I embarked on my career in the newspaper business — prior to it being lumped in with other forms of yet-to-be-invented communication and called “the media” — I leaned heavily on the experienced reporters around me to learn everything I could about a craft that enjoyed a high degree of public trust and confidence.
I listened as my older and wiser contemporaries told tales of death and disaster, corruption and integrity, heartbreak and joy, triumph and loss, brilliance and mediocrity, laughter and tears.
Over the 11 years I spent in that business, I compiled an encyclopedia of newsroom stories. In the midst of the current debate over implementing a greatly expanded vote-by-mail process in this year’s election, one stands out in my mind.
It goes like this:
On election night, a nervous candidate phoned the county clerk’s office where ballot counting was conducted and the following conversation ensued:
Candidate: “How am I doing?”
Clerk: “How much ya wanna win by?”
Apocryphal? Perhaps. But it supposedly took place in Hudson County; hence, its accuracy shouldn’t be totally discounted. Besides, the reporter who related it swore it was true and that was good enough for me.
This tale of alleged manipulation of the public will — urban myth or not — bubbled to the surface of my memory as the debate intensifies over whether “how much ya wanna win by” poses an existential threat to the electoral outcome, a threat posed by adoption of a vote-by-mail system.
Open season on honest counts
From President Donald Trump down through the state and local level, Republicans for the most part warn it will be open season for fraud in the distribution, submitting and tallying of hundreds of millions of paper ballots.
They caution too that the time-consuming process of tabulation, legal challenges and determining legitimacy could delay the outcome for weeks or more, some even projecting the nation will not know the identity of its next president until high noon on Inauguration Day.
Trump has accused Democrats of insisting on an all vote-by-mail system because they are convinced in a close election they can rig the results and deny him a second term.
In response, Democrats cite numerous studies that reveal a minuscule amount of fraud involved in vote-by-mail jurisdictions as evidence that the system actually encourages greater voter participation by simplifying and bringing greater convenience to the process.
In 2016, nearly 130 million votes were cast for president, a number so large that fraud could easily escape detection, potentially turning the actual loser into a rigged winner. That, at least, is Trump’s argument.
Democrats counter that the higher interest of democracy is better served if greater voter participation is encouraged — the purported goal of a vote-by-mail process.
Self-interest rules the day
Both parties have placed partisan self-interest above altruism. That’s not a criticism; merely an expression of the reality.
Democrats, sensitive to the less-than-robust enthusiasm for former Vice President Joe Biden, believe that a mail system will boost participation in areas with a history of support, while Republicans are convinced their party can survive if turnout follows historical patterns, but any significant increase would be difficult to overcome.
It is, they argue, in the best interest of democracy if the centuries-old American tradition of appearing in person at a polling place and exercising the constitutional right to take part in a free and open election process is preserved.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s directive to send ballots to some 5.8 million registered voters — essentially a universal vote-by-mail process — was challenged in court by the Trump administration and the Republican State Committee who argued that the power to alter the election process specifically lies with the Legislature and that the governor, by his unilateral action, exceeded his constitutional authority.
The central points in the legal challenge largely collapsed when the Legislature enacted a package of bills codifying the governor’s executive directives, even though the suit remains active as a constitutional argument.
Voters will have the option of submitting their ballot by return mail, placing it in a secure drop box or returning it to one of a limited number of polling places.
Murphy contends the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fear it has created will keep significant numbers of voters from jeopardizing their health by appearing in person at a voting location. Widespread voter suppression would result, the Democrats contend, while claiming the Trump administration’s true motive is dampening turnout in communities which historically tilt toward their party.
The pandemic has upended virtually every aspect of life and it was inevitable that as the virus continues to spread and deaths mount, in-person voting would fall victim as well.
Millions of Americans have spent months working from home wearing T-shirts, sweatpants and slippers. Spending a few minutes at the kitchen table voting for president is merely an extension of what’s become a daily routine and is hardly an imposition.
In the current climate in which fears for one’s health and well-being are genuine, opponents of vote by mail have come down on the wrong side of the issue. Their fears of potential mischief are not wholly unfounded — albeit exaggerated — but in the public relations war over the single most important vote Americans cast they appear willing to chill participation out of a belief they will benefit.
They’re convinced that “How much ya wanna win by?” could be a question asked more than once this November and that the answer will subvert the democratic process.