April 22, 2020

Princeton Dems Prepare for Elections; Forum Explores Challenges Ahead

By Donald Gilpin

With the postponed New Jersey primary now scheduled for July 7, the general election four months later, and images of the troubled Wisconsin primary fresh in memory, the push for online voter registration and universal voting by mail has gained momentum. The challenges of preparing for voting in the context of a pandemic are significant.

New Jersey Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami-Covello, and best-selling author Dave Daley (Unrigged: How Americans are Battling Back to Save Democracy) joined the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) in a virtual forum on Sunday, April 19 to warn that organizing to ensure a fair vote with all legal voters enfranchised will not be easy.

“There’s a lot to be optimistic about in our democracy,” said Daley. “There have been so many amazing citizen movements over the past couple of years and they are making a difference. But Democracies are hard to keep and ours is perhaps more fragile than we imagined it was and that’s why it needs all of us.”

Daley echoed a note that was sounded repeatedly throughout the evening by the panelists and also by moderator and PCDO President Jean Durbin. They all urged citizens to get involved, to vote, and make their voices heard.

“Dr. King talked about the moral arc of the universe being long but bending towards justice,” Daley said, “but it doesn’t bend by itself. It bends when all of us grab it and pull. We’ve got to keep our hands on it. We need to keep our hands on that arc and pull it in the direction it needs to go, all the time.”

Sollami-Covello, county clerk since 2005, stated that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is leaning towards an executive order allowing voting by mail for all voters in the state, but is facing political pushback on the issue. As she awaits the governor’s decision, she emphasized the short time frame for printing, providing necessary information, and mailing out 230,000 ballots to every voter in Mercer County.

There are about 27,000 on the Mercer County permanent vote-by-mail list, with about 3,000 additional expected if universal vote-by-mail is not available, she said.

Zwicker discussed his concerns, as well as issues raised in the New Jersey Assembly, about voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everybody is aware of the recent disaster in Wisconsin,” he said, noting that in Milwaukee only five of the 180 polling places were open for the April 7 primary there.

The need for social distancing; the health of poll workers, many of whom are elderly; and the need to sanitize voting machines are among the major concerns with in-person voting. Zwicker pointed out a number of pieces of legislation that had been passed in recent weeks, responding to COVID-19 in the areas of health and safety, economics, and elections.

“Time is short and your advocacy is crucial,” he urged in supporting three pieces of legislation designed to protect voters, promote voting by mail, allow online voter registration, and mandate postage-paid ballots. Mercer County pays for postage on ballots, Sollami-Covello said.

Citing the “horror show in Wisconsin that ought to be a warning sign for all Americans,” Daley emphasized “the absolute importance of voting by mail,” particularly in the context of the dangers of in-person voting during the current pandemic.

Daley went on to describe how for his book, published just last month, he spent a year traveling around the country researching democracy movements in different states, from Utah, Missouri, and Michigan to North Dakota and Florida.

“I know hope can be hard to come by in these days of isolation and social distance,” he said, “but let me encourage you to keep that hope alive. It was a really inspiring year. I got to ride alongside these democracy warriors who got to work building the kind of democracy they want to live in. “

Voicing his concern about the “overall environment that has made voting rights a political football,” Daley added, “We’ve made all of this so partisan. We have to do something nonpartisan to make this a fair election. Look at the pictures out of Wisconsin and let’s make it a priority not to repeat that in November.”

Zwicker, describing himself as “guardedly, cautiously optimistic,” pointed out “opportunities to get involved.” He urged, “Make sure people are registered to vote. Make sure people know about the July primary. You’d be shocked at how many people don’t actually vote. It’s important to make people who feel disenfranchised know that their voices are being heard.”

In discussing the challenges of voting during the current crisis, Durbin emphasized the goal to “come out on the other end of this better and stronger with universal access to a living wage, health care, education, affordable housing, jobs, and a voice in our democracy.”

“It’s disgraceful what’s happening with the lack of leadership in Washington,” she said. “It’s demoralizing, and hopefully tonight will help us to lift ourselves up from that demoralizing place.” She urged all the virtual forum listeners and participants to help get out the vote.