The coronavirus pandemic threatens to radically disrupt the November elections, potentially jeopardizing millions of citizens’ abilities to vote or have their votes counted. Mass disenfranchisement on this scale may put the integrity of American democracy at risk. Only quick funding by Congress to states can avert disaster and seize on what may be a fleeting opportunity to truly reform how we conduct elections in the U.S.–, if not permanently, at least in the crucial leadup to the 2020 elections. Unfortunately, rather than spurring a pragmatic discussion on funding and voting modalities, partisanship has seized all but a few of the remaining days left to deal with this issue.
As a nation, we have managed to hold general elections during the Civil War, World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, WWII, and most recently, when hurricane Sandy disrupted the 2012 elections. To date, no presidential election has ever been suspended, postponed, or delayed in U.S. history.
But elections pose unique public health risks in the midst of a global pandemic. Standard voting practices bring together large groups of people in public places using shared machines and materials—a potent recipe for the spreading of germs. Despite the known risks, many lawmakers—both Republicans and Democrats—are concerned about how changing our election processes at the last minute may impact who votes and who doesn’t.
It may be Republicans that have the most to gain in this election from emergency changes to the process. The most obvious reason is that the largest share of the electorate that supported President Trump in 2016 were voters aged 50-64 (29 percent of the overall electorate) and voters over 65 (27 percent of the overall electorate). As we all now know, that is the precise population of people who are at the highest risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Of the 53 percent of poll worker respondents who reported age date to the 2017 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), 24 percent were 71 and older; 32 percent were between the ages of 61 and 70. This means that: a) a large majority of Republican-leaning voters shouldn’t vote in person b) it will be difficult staffing polling locations with people who are not in the highest risk brackets.
That older Americans shouldn’t be voting in person or working during a pandemic is becoming crystal clear this week, as we’re beginning to see the spread of coronavirus among voters who showed up for in-person voting in Wisconsin on April 7, 2020. Thus far, nineteen voters and poll workers in the state are reported to have been infected at the polls. Multiply this across all states, exacerbated by more voters who show up for general elections, and we have a health disaster.
Another reasonable concern about the elections is our ability to implement the necessary changes both quickly and safely, and to ensure that voter educational campaigns reach all demographics. Between now and June 23, 2020, twenty-one states and Washington, D.C. have presidential primary deadlines; only fourteen states have postponed in-person elections or extended their mail-in voting deadlines. Only five states are currently all or mostly vote-by-mail– to meet the expected surge in mail voting or mobile polling places, states and local jurisdictions will need to ramp up their existing operations sooner than later.
We need responsive guidelines that take seriously the risks associated with the economic and health crisis, and also the real risks associated with making sweeping changes too quickly. A secure election—at least for people in the U.S.—means that we successfully ensure that our voters, poll workers, election officials, ballots, and vote counts are free and fair, and safe from any undue influence.
Broadly, that necessitates changes in polling place modifications and preparations, such as considering drive-by or car side voting and mobile polling locations. It’s also necessary to: expand early voting and increase mail-in voting; increase the availability of online voter registration (which is key to an inclusive vote in November); expand voter education; and significantly working to prevent fraud and manipulation in voting.
Time is not on our side. We need to plan for these changes and secure funding for the states in the next relief package that Congress considers. The next three weeks will determine whether we can safely ensure one of the most important tenets of our democracy.