Voting to the Moon and Back

By Gwyn Lurie   |   April 9, 2020

Huge thanks from the Montecito Journal to Maureen McDermut & Associates for sponsoring this week’s home delivery! We are doing everything possible to get to you during this difficult moment!

In the blink of an eye, the world has changed. On Sunday evening my daughter wanted takeout from a local Mexican restaurant, but my husband questioned whether he was potentially risking his life for a burrito – albeit a good one. Just like that, so many ordinary, mundane tasks have become potentially life-threatening ventures out into a scientific unknown.

If the coronavirus has changed the complexion of picking up takeout, I wondered, what must it be like for the workers at Los Arroyos, or at Vons, or Montecito Village Grocery, or at the post office? Picking up takeout my husband would be interacting with just one stranger. But the workers at these establishments are interacting with dozens of “random” humans throughout the day, of unknown hygiene, so that we can feed our families in the safety of Purelled-to-death biodomes we call our homes. There is not enough gratitude in the world for these workers who take such risks each day so that we can continue to feed our families and live some semblance of a normal life.

The new surreality is that so many mundane tasks we used to not think about have become, overnight, potentially life-threatening rolls of the dice.

Now with Election Day slightly more than half a year away, and a recent Supreme Court ruling curtailing vote-by-mail in Wisconsin, one of our unalienable rights – voting – must join the list of formerly ordinary but now potentially life-threatening acts. Shouldn’t all of us have not just the right to vote, but the right to vote safely? I am saddened by the Supreme Court’s decision on Monday that forces many Wisconsin voters to potentially risk coronavirus infection in order to vote in person. And it got me to thinking. What if our January 9, 2018 catastrophic event had happened on November 5, 2018? And what if our only choice had been to vote in person at our assigned polling booth in Montecito, where first responders were still risking their own lives to search for survivors? That would have made for a difficult choice.

Businesses are asking customers to stay home and shop online. Most banking is done online. Doctors are examining patients online. School is being conducted online, as are graduations. So why would we not, in light of this pandemic, ensure a way to execute our right to vote online? Very soon every computer and phone will be opened via fingerprint, if not retinal scan. Or both. So why would we quarantine this one foundational aspect of our democracy – voting – from the forward march of technology?

I have heard the argument that online voting would lead to voter fraud. And let me assure you, I am not a fan of election fraud or interference or voter suppression of any kind, even if it tilts the scale in my direction. I’m not a fan when Democrats do it to Republicans (Mayor Daley delivering Illinois for JFK), or when they do it to each other (Deborah Wasserman-Schultz to Bernie Sanders in 2016) or when Republicans do it to Democrats (Mark Harris in North Carolina last year), or when the U.S. abets voter fraud in other countries (our 1970 overthrow of the democratically elected Salvador Allende in Chile – and 80 other foreign elections the U.S. has been “involved” with).

Put national politics aside for a moment, if you can, and think about this in terms of local politics. If, heaven forbid, this need for social distancing and quarantine continues into the fall and if we, as citizens, are not allowed to all vote by mail, then what happens? This pandemic has already prompted many states to delay their primary elections. This disruption of the political process is spurring on a widespread call for a state-by-state vote-by-mail system to be put in place by November. And presumably, vote-by-mail is just a logical precursor to on-line voting. Unfortunately, however, our nation is made up of a confusing patchwork of different rules for different states, which allows for decisions to be made not based on fairness, and the importance of every vote counting, but on political gamesmanship that puts a thumb on the scales of justice for political advantage.

How does this serve our democracy? And how does this serve the American people? Wasn’t our fight for Independence a fight for recognition and representation?

There are few things more central to our republic than our right to vote. But for our country to have a proverbial civil/political war over whether or not we should do everything in our power to make sure that every person’s vote is counted, at a time when we are being told that the most patriotic thing we can do is stay home, is quixotic to me.

Here’s an interesting nuance of voting law I’ll bet you didn’t know. Texas Administrative Code Rule 81.35 was signed into law by George W. Bush when he was governor. It’s the law that allows astronauts to vote from space and even vote early.

Here’s how that law comes into practice before Election Day: before the mission, an astronaut identifies which elections he or she will be in orbit for. Then, before Election Day, an encrypted electronic ballot is up linked to the astronauts by Mission Control. Using a set of unique credentials sent to each astronaut via email, astronauts can access their ballots, cast their votes, and downlink them back down to Earth directly to the County Clerk’s Office.

The first person to vote in such manner was the astronaut David Wolf, who was aboard the Russian built Mir space station at the time, and listed his domicile as “low orbit, Earth.” So, in a sense, Wolf was even voting from Russian territory.

If local residents cannot leave their homes to vote, and cannot vote by mail, then they cannot vote. The Founding Fathers wanted to guarantee us life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was not an either/or situation which, in the face of the coronavirus, seems to be the conundrum Wisconsin voters are facing.

Fortunately, thanks to actual rocket scientists (and your federal tax dollars that funded them) and some forward thinking and patriotic legislation by George W. Bush, we have in fact figured out how to circumvent extreme voting challenges such as Space and there is no reason such systems could not be adapted here on Earth – a place where we do almost everything online these days from pray to date. Do we want a world where only elites get the essentials? – where celebs and NBA stars get coronavirus tests, and for an astronaut on a Russian space station somehow we can figure out a way to make his vote count but not ours. Which America are we going to be? Remember this when you go to the polls. If you can go to the polls.


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