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Protecting Our Democracy Amid Coronavirus

*Updated July 20, 2020

The novel coronavirus pandemic presents unique and dangerous opportunities for autocrats and heads of state with anti-democratic tendencies to further consolidate power. We have already seen these anti-democratic tendencies emerging in the U.S. from the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. 

We are working to protect our democracy amid the pandemic in three key ways:

Read through our sections above to get the details.

While the coronavirus threatens our health, President Trump’s response to the pandemic threatens our democracy in myriad ways. We’ve focused our efforts on three issues regarding abuse of power:

  • President Trump’s claims to power that rightly belong to the states and Congress;
  • His threats to distribute aid to states based on politics and patronage rather than on need and objective data;
  • His efforts to undermine the oversight mechanisms Congress put in place in the coronavirus stimulus bill.

At bottom, each of these issues implicates limits on the scope and permissible uses of presidential power. Our work aims to ensure that President Trump does not use this public crisis to amass power or to improperly leverage the power he does have for political gain. Read more about each of the three issues we’ve focused on, below.

Federal Response

Protect Democracy is providing ongoing expert analysis of the federal government’s response to the pandemic. Find our published analysis here.

Aid to States

The lack of publicly available information about how the federal government is procuring and allocating scarce resources to states in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic creates a situation that is ripe for abuse.

Protect Democracy released recommendations for Congress and the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, including (a) legislation and (b) a set of recommendations to each of the relevant oversight bodies aimed at ensuring public access to information about the federal government’s allocation of aid and resources to states and deterring any distribution of resources on the basis of politics or patronage. Read our recommendations here.

These recommendations were created in partnership with the Project on Government Oversight, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, American Oversight, Public Citizen, and the Constitutional Accountability Center.

Presidential Accountability

President Trump has attempted to claim the powers of a king by placing himself above the law. Protect Democracy is fighting back. We released ads challenging President Trump’s efforts to bar oversight mechanisms of coronavirus relief funds and his explicit claims of “total” power over the states. 

These ads are in collaboration with Republicans for Rule of Law on the Presidential Accountability Project to fight against arbitrary uses of presidential power and to uphold the laws of the constitution. This project aims to expose the ways in which President Trump’s tactics endanger the very future of our democracy.

Our latest video explains that Trump is not king, and aired during Fox & Friends on April 15. Watch our latest ad:

You can also watch our first video, “President Trump thinks he is above the law,here.

A functioning representative government and free and fair elections are cornerstones of our democracy. We’ve focused our efforts on ensuring these cornerstones adapt to remain operational and accessible to the public amid extraordinary circumstances.

Keeping Congress Operational

Congress must be able to operate and fulfill its constitutional obligations during a pandemic. Congress’s capacity to respond legislatively is limited if it is almost never in session and if it needs to operate by unanimous consent. Just as importantly, oversight cannot happen if Congress is not operational amid the pandemic.

We have signed onto the following letters with recommendations to Congress, urging them to operate remotely during the pandemic and to fund technology modernization in support of these operations.

Elections in the Age of Coronavirus 

Wisconsin: Protecting Voters and Democracy During the Pandemic

On May 18, 2020, Protect Democracy and a coalition of Wisconsin voters and organizations that work to mobilize Wisconsin voters sued state election officials for violating federal laws that protect the right to vote. 

The Wisconsin Elections Commission’s failure to properly manage the April 7 election, held amid the expanding coronavirus pandemic, violated federal statutes and the U.S. Constitution, which protects every eligible voter’s right to vote. The suit asks the court to implement measures to ensure that all Wisconsin voters will be able to freely and safely participate in the upcoming August and November elections.

Our Wisconsin litigation includes the claim that conducting an election in which reasonable fears of contracting COVID-19 keep voters from casting ballots violates the Voting Rights Act’s prohibition on voter intimidation. We wrote more about the claim here.

For more information, visit Wisconsin: Protecting Voters & Democracy During the Pandemic.

Supporting the Rights of Texas Voters to Be Free From Unlawful Intimidation

On June 4, 2020, Texas Democratic Party sued the Governor of Texas and several other Texas officials. In a lawsuit brought in federal district court, the plaintiffs claimed that Texas officials violated the U.S. Constitution and federal laws protecting the right to vote by failing to implement COVID-19 safeguards for the state’s primary and general elections. They also claimed that the Texas Attorney General violated federal voter intimidation law by threatening to prosecute citizens who opt to vote using absentee ballots to avoid risking their health by voting in person.

Protect Democracy filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the plaintiffs, explaining that federal laws against intimidating voters can apply to threats made by the Attorney General to arrest and prosecute voters for casting absentee ballots. When voters are intimidated in this way, it threatens the integrity of our electoral process and strikes at the very heart of our democracy. Protect Democracy is steadfast in our determination to fight voter intimidation in Texas or anywhere else it may arise.

For more information about our brief, click here.

National Task Force on Election Crises

Protect Democracy has convened the National Task Force on Election Crises, a diverse, cross-partisan team of over 50 experts in election law, national security, civil rights, and emergency response, to help ensure a free and fair 2020 election despite unexpected disruptions and disasters, including the coronavirus pandemic.

The Task Force released the COVID-19 Election Guide, which addresses how state and local officials can protect eligible voters’ ability to cast ballots without undue risk to their own health or to the broader community.

For more information about the Task Force, visit ElectionTaskForce.org

To meet the threat of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, our federal government must take action that is informed by sound independent science. Yet, in too many instances, the Trump administration has disregarded scientific expertise, undermined or attempted to skew the government’s efforts, while downplaying the impact of the virus on multiple occasions, and spreading misinformation to the American public, for short-term political gain.

This is not the first time our country has seen the federal government undermine scientific integrity in pursuit of short-term political gains. However, the COVID-19 crisis reveals the true scale of the harm possible when this trend goes unchecked.

In response, Protect Democracy organized a statement by a bipartisan group of former government public health professionals, researchers, and scientists who have served as far back as the Nixon administration, to express their support for scientific independence and integrity as COVID-19 cases rise again.

The full statement can be read here.

The statement reminds current government scientists and officials of the crucial role they play in maintaining scientific integrity and independence and warns of the consequences of a pandemic response that prioritizes politics over science.

Former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, one of the statement’s signatories, says, “With the United States in the grip of a global pandemic, government scientists must feel free to go where the research leads them and not fear retribution because of political agendas. Our country cannot afford it.”

“The scientists and public health officials in agencies like the CDC, FDA, and NIAID are answering the nation’s call to mitigate the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and help us take care of our loved ones,” says signatory Dr. Luciana Borio, former Food and Drug Administration Acting Chief Scientist under Presidents Obama and Trump. “It is critical that they be unburdened by political interference and allowed to focus on the challenge at hand.”

“Discarding the views of seasoned federal scientists has already hamstrung our response to the pandemic and cost countless people their lives,” says signatory Dr. Peter Lurie, former Associate Commissioner for Public Health Strategy and Analysis at the Food and Drug Administration under Presidents Obama and Trump. “Science must be our yardstick; without that there is the inevitable chaos we have endured for the last several months.”

“As government scientists and other officials risk their careers by speaking truth to power, they need to know that the US Congress will have their back” says Dr. Ali Nouri, President of the Federation of American Scientists who served as advisor to Congress. “Any unfounded and politically-motivated retaliation by the administration against these public officials should be met with strong bipartisan action and oversight by the Congress.”

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