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The headline at the top of the front page of The Oakland Tribune on November 2, 1918, reassured Californians on the eve of that year’s statewide and congressional elections: voting safe if you wear your mask.
“Voters are receiving assurances from state and local health authorities that there is no danger of contracting the influenza by going to the polls on Tuesday,” the story explained.
Inquiries about the safety of heading to a crowded hall to cast a ballot were understandable. The other page-one headline read death toll from flu 39 in 24 hours. Across the country, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin carried a story on how the flu had “hit election systems” as voting day approached and letters sent to poll workers were returning with the word “deceased” written on the envelope.
“Election day, November 5, 1918, came and went, without a single political rally or campaign dinner,” Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Northwestern reported. While it is hard to assess where the impact of World War I intersected with the impact of the influenza outbreak, turnout that November 5 election was way down—from 50.4 percent in the previous midterm election of 1914 to 39.9 percent in 1918. When the ballots were counted, Republicans had won complete control of the Congress, taking both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in a decade.
Disease outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics have always raised election issues. Some of those issues involve parties and candidates, as we are reminded by President Trump’s bizarre responses to the coronavirus outbreak—which have ranged from wild changes that “Washington Democrats are trying to politicize the coronavirus” to his rambling suggestion that those who pursued impeachment and removal (what he calls “the impeachment hoax”) are now trying to score political points by discrediting his response.
“Think of it. Think of it,” the president told a South Carolina rally last week. “And this is their new hoax.” Weeks ago, a Daily Beast headline read, “Donald Trump Campaign Fears Coronavirus Will Hurt His Re-Election Bid,” and after days of stock market turbulence, CNN Business published, “Coronavirus could cost Trump the election, Goldman Sachs warns.”
As we get reports of a rising death toll, new cases in new places, and closures of facilities such as the University of Washington in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease, our attention must move beyond matters of political positioning and calculation to the question of whether the voting process itself might be threatened.
This is about more than the coronavirus.
This is about how a country with uneven and frequently dysfunctional voting systems should prepare for a crisis that might demand emergency responses to maintain a fully functioning and reliable democracy. Advance planning gives election officials options when dealing with calls—by sincere health administrators or self-serving politicians—for the postponement of voting. Postponements have happened in the not-so-distant past: New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary was halted after voting had already begun on September 11, 2001, and a New Orleans mayoral election that was scheduled for shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
In the midst of man-made or natural disasters, it may be that a brief postponement is required to avoid extreme low turnout. In the case of a contagious disease threat, a fallback plan for voting by mail or through other strategies is the preferred and possible response. But to get things right, protocols and plans must be in place before a threat becomes a crisis.
Unfortunately, says US Representative Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak,“There’s nothing that they’ve even expressed to us on the elections side.”
Super Tuesday voting saw reactions to the coronavirus by state and local election officials in communities where cases have been confirmed. For instance, Eric Kurhi, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County, California, Registrar of Voters, announced that his agency was “providing each vote center with hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes to use on the touch screen machines that we have. Following the public health recommendations, we will urge people who feel sick to take the opportunity to mail in their ballot or drop it off at one of our many drop boxes. But we do not anticipate this will affect vote center operations.”
Super Tuesday passed with only the usual problems—long waits, malfunctioning machines, and slow counts. But what about next week? And the week after that, as more states hold more primaries and caucuses? What about the summer conventions of the Democrats in Milwaukee and the Republicans in Charlotte—when thousands of delegates, alternates, reporters, and hangers-on will jet in from all over the country and around the world? What about the November election?
Experts have warned that public health and economic challenges related to coronavirus are likely to become more severe. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said late in February. Around the same time, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said, “We should all be dusting off our pandemic preparedness plans and rehearse them very quickly.”
Among the plans that need dusting off, or development, are strategies for holding elections in a time of crisis—like, say, a pandemic. Warnings of what could happen are being sounded. In a February 2020 Wired article headlined “Coronavirus May Disrupt the 2020 Election. We Need a Plan,” Jon Stokes, the deputy editor of ThePrepared.com, argues that “it’s time for Americans to begin to think through how to pull off a national election against the backdrop of a pandemic that would surely see voter turnout significantly suppressed, especially in dense urban areas and among vulnerable populations.”
Time magazine just highlighted the election concerns and featured an ominous warning:
Maurice Turner, an expert in election security at the Center for Democracy and Technology, says fears about contracting the new coronavirus are just part of the battle. Officials—and voters—must also grapple with the possibility that bad actors are willfully spreading misinformation about the virus in an effort to depress voter turn out, or to manipulate which populations turns out to vote.
Expanding existing programs for voting by mail, Stokes suggests, would be “a straightforward fix.” And there may be more fixes, but right now, as he reminds us, there’s just a gap. While some states have laws for postponing elections and contingency plans to “fall back on some combination of existing early voting, vote-by-mail, and absentee ballot options in an emergency,” we lack a “national plan for what to do about the election if a coronavirus outbreak puts our cities on lockdown and fills our hospitals in November.”
“Look no further than the Iowa caucuses,” says Pocan, who sits on the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Noting the disaster that occurred when the failure of apps and backup strategies stalled the counting of this year’s first-in-the-nation vote, he said, “If you don’t have a plan and things go wrong, it’s chaos. And when we’re talking about coronavirus, we should be doing everything we can to avoid chaos.”