LOCKPORT, N. Y. -- The great debate over voting by mail has begun.

President Trump has blasted it as an invitation to widespread fraud. He tweeted in June, “IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” and has warned that Democrats plan to distribute ballots to undocumented immigrants, and that foreign governments will flood our mailboxes with false ballots. On the Democratic side, Senator Amy Klobuchar, taking stock of a potential new spike of Covid-19 infections just in time for November’s presidential vote, has declared: “In a democracy, no one should be forced to choose between health and the right to vote.”

April’s Wisconsin primary already offered a chilling look at what happens when going to the polls runs into a pandemic. More than 7,000 poll workers refused to work because they feared getting sick, leaving thousands of mask-clad voters standing in line for hours. But absentee balloting leapt from 140,000 voters in 2016 to more than a million in this election, though not without glitches that left almost ten thousand voters without the ballots they had legally requested.

November’s presidential election will certainly be the most heated and consequential in a generation. What we cannot afford is for that election also to become a democratic farce amid the ravages of a pandemic. In the rising national debate over voting by mail, somewhere between the claims of fraud on one side and of panacea on the other, lies a tricky middle ground called reality: What would a nationwide election-by-mail really look like? What bumps in the road should we prepare for?

Here in this small, conservative city of Lockport, in western New York, we got a sense of the challenges ahead. In June a test run in miniature occurred in the school district’s all-vote-by-mail election for the board of education.

These annual elections generally exhibit two consistent qualities: they are wickedly dull and no one shows up. In 2019, a field of four candidates running for four seats drew 856 voters from the 21,000 people registered in the school district to vote. This is not exactly democratic participation at its finest. Student government elections at our high school elicit more votes.

In 2020, all that changed -- for three reasons: a local controversy over deploying facial recognition surveillance in the schools; anger in Lockport’s Black community over the district’s refusal to hold onto a beloved African-American middle-school counselor; and, most of all, a May 1 executive order from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandating the state’s school board elections be conducted exclusively by mail-in voting due to the virus pandemic. The result was an election in which votes leapt an astounding five-fold. So many people voted it took election workers three days to count all the ballots.

There was also the matter of a major recent controversy in our district that involved a retired General Motors worker named Ron Cheatham. Since 2007, Cheatham, who is Black, has worked in our schools as a peer mediator (as the position is known). A gentle soul beloved by the students, teachers, and parents alike, he specializes in counseling children at that difficult middle-school age of 12 and 13. When he reached the age of 62, he asked the district if he could switch to half-time working to avoid losing his Social Security payments as a retiree. The district denied his request.

In Lockport, the controversies led to a surge of interest in the election: a record 11 candidates filed to run for four seats. They included three incumbent members seeking reelection and seven reform candidates running on two different slates. One slate, comprising entirely African-American candidates, was led by Ron Cheatham’s wife, Renee Cheatham, who had become a powerful critic of the current board. The second slate, which had both black and white candidates, was also critical of the board, running under a “Kids First” banner. The election did not go well.

On May 23, the same day that absentee ballots were supposed to have arrived in people’s mailboxes, what arrived instead was a small yellow post card from the district that incorrectly advised 9 out of 10 eligible voters that they couldn’t legally vote in the school election. In addition to outlining the normal legal requirements – at least 18 years old, US citizen, resident of the school district, and registered to vote -- the district notice added one more legal requirement: you had to have voted in at least one other school election in the past four years. Because voter turnout in these elections never cracks the 10 percent mark, this would have excluded more than 90 percent of the voters. The result was widespread confusion.

Fortunately, the editor of the Lockport Union-Sun and Journal, Joyce Miles, spotted the mistake and called it out on the front page. At first, the district insisted the requirement was real, but two days later officials relented and declared it had been a “proofreading error.” The school district had to spend another $8,600 to send out a correction postcard. For many, the episode left a whiff of voter suppression hanging over an election in which five Black candidates were trying to crack open an all-white board.

The next election setback involved the ballots themselves. Under Cuomo’s plan, absentee ballots were supposed to arrive more than two weeks before they were due, giving voters ample time to get informed, mark their ballots, and mail them back. In Lockport, as elsewhere in the state, the promised date came and went -- and no ballots arrived. It eventually emerged that the company hired to send out the ballots had run out of envelopes. As a result, most people received their ballots a couple of days before they had to be mailed. Logistical delays like this hit so many districts across the state that at the last minute, the governor extended the voting period by a week.

All of this took place against a national backdrop that went beyond just the pandemic to the protests spreading across the country against police violence that’s killed Black people. Here in Lockport, that is not something theoretical or far away. It is local and deadly

A year ago, in June of 2019, Troy Hodge, an African-American father of three, was killed in a violent encounter with police during which he was handcuffed and tasered by Lockport officers and deputies from the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office. Reportedly, Hodge was having a breakdown, possibly exacerbated by drugs, and his mother called the police for help. That help left him dead.

In the days after his death, there were protests and vigils and a city council meeting was taken over by angry members of the community demanding answers. The investigation was handed over to the New York attorney general; a year later, the Hodge family is still waiting for a response.

Just as people were casting their ballots in the school district election, people here, as in so many other places, were taking to the streets in protest, and the connection between the voting and the protests was becoming more clear. At one large city hall rally, a council-member declared to great cheers that coming out into the streets was important but that people also had to vote -- and that included voting for the Black candidates seeking a greater voice in the governance of Lockport’s schools, in which Black students get suspended at twice the rate of everyone else. And it’s not only about the schools: in a city that is almost 8 percent Black, not a single member of the city council, nor a single police officer or firefighter, is Black. 

Despite the election process missteps, it seemed a tiny school district in western New York might end up demonstrating what could happen if you made it easy for people to vote and gave them something meaningful to vote for. By election day, more than 5,300 people had voted, a number five times the normal.

As the count continued through its second day and into a third day, a large and somber crowd gathered outside the home of Fatima Hodge, Troy’s mother, at the spot where her son was killed in his struggle with police. It was the first time she had spoken publicly about it and she delivered a powerful call to action. “There is a time and a place and a season for a change,” she said. “I’m telling you this is the time. Nothing comes easy, but you got a choice to make that change.”

The next afternoon, the results of Lockport’s school elections were announced live via a video feed of a special board meeting. Renee Cheatham had finished in a commanding first place, garnering more votes than any candidate in memory. Behind her, though, the three other winners included not a single one of the other challengers, but instead the three incumbents, a result that may have been as much of a surprise to them as to everyone else.

What does this story about a small school district election offer up as lessons about voting by mail this November on a far bigger scale?

The first lesson is that voting-by-mail in Lockport did achieve important things: no one was prevented from voting out of fear for their health, and neither voters nor poll workers had to put themselves at risk by braving long lines and crowded polling stations. That is a not-insignificant achievement, especially if there is a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. It also proved that making voting easier can have a huge impact on voter turnout. Lockport’s turnout leap of 500 percent was no accident.

The second lesson is that the mechanics of mail-in voting matter, a lot. Balloting by mail adds a whole set of steps that aren’t required when voters record their ballots at a polling place. Mail-in ballots need to be produced, they need to be correct, they need to be sent out on time, they need to arrive reliably, with enough return envelopes, and people need clear instructions on how to mail them back, including signing the envelope. This is true not only to assure that everyone has the right to vote but to assure broad public confidence in that voting.

The causes of social justice and the right to vote have been aligned in the United States since the nation’s birth, from women’s suffrage, to the Voting Rights Act, to today’s battles against voter suppression. As we face the unprecedented circumstance of a presidential election during a pandemic, the right to vote by mail has a new urgency in protecting Americans’ fundamental right to cast a ballot.

This is a condensed version of a column the author, Jim Shultz, wrote for The New York Review of Books. Shultz is a resident of Lockport, New York, and executive director of the Democracy Center.  He is also the author of a new memoir, “My Other Country, Nineteen Years in Bolivia.” It can be found at jimshultzthewriter.com. Reach him at jimshultz@democracyctr.org.

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