The Coronavirus Shows The Need For A New Approach To Voting
There is now no aspect of American daily life that has not been disrupted by COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus. Schools have shut down, armies of corporate employees are now working from home, and the possibility of a total shutdown along the lines of what has happened in Italy looms over the United States. Colorado governor Jared Polis ordered all ski resorts in the state to cease operations. Ohio governor Mike DeWine has discussed the possibility of ordering all bars and restaurants in his state to close, and the city of San Francisco and other cities may follow suit.
The NBA, NHL and other sports leagues have postponed their seasons, while college basketball’s March Madness has been canceled outright. The status of the Olympic games in Tokyo has been called into question, although Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe has insisted that they will go ahead as scheduled. If they were to be canceled, it would be the first time that the Games did not meet their four year schedule since the Second World War.
It is in fact the biggest disruption of the overall flow of American, or indeed global society since World War II , and even during that war regular sports such as Major League Baseball continued on its season (although many of the best players, most famously Ted Williams, were drafted into military service). Although there has been no need to institute the type of food rationing and overall price controls that were found during World War II, items such as toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, and staple food items such as rice, beans and pasta have become difficult to find on the shelves of grocery stores.
However, where the level of disruption becomes truly apparent is in the way that it has impacted elections in this country, which have taken place on schedule even during the Civil War. This pandemic is taking place in the midst of the Presidential primaries, and already two states- Louisiana and Georgia- have announced that they will be postponing the primaries that they had scheduled for March 17, 2020. It is unclear as of this moment whether or not any other remaining primaries or caucuses will be postponed because of the virus, however it would be unwise at this point to bet against it happening.
The reasons for this are obvious- hundreds of people going through small polling places (often staffed by older volunteers) would be disastrous from a public health and epidemiology perspective. France, which has suffered an even more extensive outbreak so far than the United States, did nonetheless proceed with holding nationwide elections for mayors and other local offices on Sunday March 15.
The French will be taking unprecedented measures in order to ensure the most safety possible during these local elections. Polling places will have supplies of soap and disinfectant wipes in place ahead of time. In polling place lines, a gap of one meter (or three feet) between people waiting in lines to vote. Voters are required to bring their own pens to fill out their ballots, as opposed to regular circumstances, where they would be using pens supplied by workers at the polling places.
In justifying his decision to allow these elections to go forward, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that, as difficult of a decision as it was, taking any other course of action would be contrary to the most fundamental principles of democracy. And, given Georgia governor Brian Kemp’s conduct as Secretary of State in Georgia’s 2018 elections (where he himself is on the ballot), one might certainly point out the weaknesses of his adherence to democratic principles.
However, as noble-sounding an intention as preserving democracy by allowing the elections to go forward may be, the democratic process in France will be harmed nonetheless. There is an element of unfairness to expecting people to turn out in an election when it well and truly may be putting their well-being at risk, especially so for older people, who are disproportionately affected by the virus. Already, it is clear that turnout is projected to be at record lows in these elections, and it is likely that any American presidential primaries held during the outbreak will suffer from similarly low turnout.
What the impact of the coronavirus on these elections in both the United States and France shows is that the traditional means of voting may be more vulnerable to disruption in this day and age than anyone may have thought. However, the good thing is that there are alternative models for voting that are already being successfully carried out both in the United States as well as in Europe.
An obvious initial step would be to abolish the already blatantly outdated and anachronistic caucus system, which has already been pronounced all but dead after the disastrous failed reporting of the results in Iowa. Furthermore, states could follow the example of Washington, Oregon and Colorado, which have passed laws enabling universal vote by mail. There has been bill proposed in Congress that would enable universal vote by mail across all fifty states.
A model for Europe to follow could be the way that elections are conducted in Estonia. This small Baltic nation has conducted all of its voting online since 2005, with none of the major issues that plagued the U.S. in the Iowa caucus, for example. While this may be unrealistic for the U.S. to implement any time soon, other nations in Europe might more plausibly go in this direction.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown just how open to disruption aspects of life that everyone in the western world takes for granted can truly be. In order to combat future epidemics or black swan events of another type, planning will be required in order to ensure that that disruption is mitigated. Nowhere will this planning be required more than in the future design of Western election systems. In the age of the pandemic, elections as we know them will have to fundamentally evolve.