Elections are the lifeblood of any democracy. The United States has an enviable and unparalleled record of holding regular national and state elections on time since the Constitution’s ratification in 1787. Localities in dire crisis, such as New York after the 9/11 attacks, have postponed elections, but we have never postponed or canceled a regularly scheduled national election. Even the Great Depression, the Civil War and the outbreak of riots in 1968 did not stop democracy’s march.
Most of the election postponements now will have little effect on the heart of democracy. States such as Georgia have simply consolidated their separate presidential primary with regularly scheduled statewide primaries for all offices. That may discomfit the Democratic Party, which will have to decide how to adjust as delegates may not be selected in some states until after the cutoff period for the mid-July convention in Milwaukee. But that’s not a strong enough concern to justify risking American lives by continuing elections.
Postponing statewide primary elections, as Wisconsin may do, raises a larger concern. Wisconsin’s elections are scheduled for April 7, and they include non-primary races for offices such as mayor of Milwaukee and a seat on the state Supreme Court. Postponing those races means offices go unfilled or previously elected incumbents get their tenure extended without popular sanction. Either result is severely troubling for self-government.
The issue is even more disturbing if we look ahead to November’s general election. We hope that life will have largely returned to normal by the fall, but experts warn that we might have to go through multiple periods of enforced social distancing to truly stamp out the virus. If the virus makes a comeback in mid-September, the prospect for a delayed general election will be squarely on the table.
That would be a terrible decision. Our democracy is already frayed by partisan discord. Delaying an election, especially if such a delay happened later in October, and if the polls showed President Trump likely to lose, would cause irreparable damage to the trust that is the lifeblood of any democracy. People will lose faith in government if they begin to believe that elected officials will use the cover of emergency to maintain power. We cannot even contemplate stepping down that path.
Other nations have grappled with this and came down on democracy’s side. Israel held its national elections on March 2 as the country was beginning to experience the coronavirus pandemic. Its politics are as fractured as ours, and a delay would have infuriated the half of Israel that desperately wants Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing religious government gone. The election itself went off without a hitch, with higher turnout than their last national elections the prior fall. The nation even set up separate polling stations for Israelis under quarantine for the virus so that the sick could vote too. No one in Israel is arguing that the election has facilitated the virus’s spread.
South Korea is making a similar choice. Its regularly scheduled legislative elections are due on April 15. The nation was one of the first to be hit by the virus and has recent memories of another viral outbreak in 2015. While health concerns have limited outdoor campaigning, the election is going on as planned. Again, the health of democracy is considered as important as the health of the citizens.
We can plan ahead for our fall elections so that we invigorate our democracy without unduly risking people’s lives. Mail balloting can be extended to all people in all states. States unwilling to do that could allow one-time absentee ballots for anyone vulnerable to infection due to age or doctor-supported chronic conditions. As in Israel, separate polling stations can be established for people with the virus, and perhaps even extended to people at risk of serious complications if they catch it. We could also dramatically increase the number of voting machines at any location to reduce wait times. One can even imagine making voting lines smaller by having a reservation system set up to give a set number of people a guaranteed spot ahead of time to minimize queuing. The possibilities are limited only by time and our imagination.
One way or another, the United States needs to resolve the question of whether the president should remain in office via the ballot box. Let’s plan now to ensure that this decision takes place on time and under conditions that all sides can agree are free and fair.