I believe in the promise of America, of government by and for the people. I also believe in citizen activism, so every four years, I usually volunteer for one of the presidential campaigns, make a few calls, and then pat myself on the back.
This year, I’m prepared to do more. And I’m asking my neighbors in Berks County and across the state to be prepared to do more, because this election is different, and the stakes for our democracy are sky-high.
I’m not talking about which candidate wins. I’m not trying to change your vote. But I am asking you to join me in working for the country that most of us believe in, where everyone counts and every vote is counted. There will be challenges to our election system this election season that we’ve never seen before. If we join together, I know we can meet them.
The first challenge is the coronavirus pandemic. Our election officials are expecting a surge of people to vote by mail to avoid crowded polling sites that put them at risk. Concerns about spreading or contracting COVID-19 may also create problems recruiting enough poll workers, which could lead to last-minute site closures and long lines. Pennsylvania, by law, doesn’t start counting mail-in votes until Election Day, so there’s almost no way we’ll know for sure which presidential candidate won our state on election night.
All of us, as voters, have to acknowledge just how different this election will be. Some folks are hoping to stoke chaos, but chaos only takes hold when people are hit with something they didn’t expect. We can expect delays in the results. But we can also expect the United States to get it right because fair and secure elections are not partisan. Our country has always held elections and upheld the results, even in times of great crisis, like the Civil War, the Great Depression, and both World Wars. The media and our elected officials need to reassure voters that all is well when results aren’t immediately available. They must absolutely wait to name a winner until all votes are counted.
Our second challenge, sadly, is the unprecedented attack on our democracy from the president. “We have the unprecedented situation of a man who took the oath of office to support the Constitution, but is directly challenging the result of the election prior to the outcome,” said Republican Tom Ridge, our former governor and secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.
For months, Donald Trump and some of his supporters have made false attacks on the integrity of mail-in and absentee voting, while cutting funding for the U.S. Postal Service and interfering with its operation. Leaders of the Republican Party have supercharged a decades-old assault on the voting rights of people of color by doubling down on barriers to voting that are especially challenging during the pandemic, such as strict photo ID requirements, early voting cutbacks, and registration restrictions.
But in America, power is still in the hands of the people. We have to be ready to make our voices heard if the incumbents try to cheat by these means. Trump can’t game the system without help from people like Sen. Pat Toomey or Republican state House Speaker Bryan Cutler. He can’t defy millions of everyday Americans saying no.
Voting in this election is absolutely vital, as it always is. But it’s also not enough. It’s never been enough, and it certainly isn’t this year. Whether you cast your ballot as a Republican or a Democrat, I need all of you to be ready to join me in the streets in the days after the election if Trump and his enablers try to cheat. We must answer them with peaceful protest in every city, borough, and township in the nation. That’s what has always made a difference, and that’s how we will make sure our elected leaders hear us this time.
The promise of America is a country where our leaders represent all of us, not just the privileged few, where we care for each other, and where the will of the people is the law of the land. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Reading or Philly, a boomer or a millennial, or, yes, even if you’re a Republican or a Democrat — all of us must stand together for our democracy.
Jane Palmer is a volunteer organizer and the founder of Berks Stands Up.