Officials in Lincoln, Neb., prepare mail-in ballots for the state’s May 12 primary.

The nuts and bolts of integrity in the US election

The 2020 campaign and the vote itself are challenged by the fallout from COVID-19. What’s needed to raise public trust?

The warm weather of an election year has arrived in the United States without the usual pageantry of democracy. Bus tours, rallies, and rope lines are all on hold. The party nominating conventions are in doubt. That may be welcome news to some. Opinion polls in recent years have shown that two-thirds of voters think elections last far too long. The first candidate entered the current presidential race 1,194 days before Election Day – twice as early as the first candidate four years ago. In Japan, campaigns are limited by law to 12 days.

The pandemic’s disruption of normal campaign activity has further sharpened the partisan tenor of the contest. It also has raised concerns about the integrity of the November ballot. The once-normal and healthy encounters between candidates and voters, played out in passion and poignancy, humor and gaffes, have given way to exaggerated barbs on social media and in political advertising. The prospect of mail-in voting has divided Republicans and Democrats in Washington even as some governors from both parties embrace it.

Beneath all that, the coronavirus crisis has underscored the resilience of many democracies at a time when the ideal of self-government appears to be faltering around the world.

A report published by Cambridge University in January, based on 3,500 country surveys from 1973 to the present, found that popular dissatisfaction with democracy had reached a global high by the start of 2020, particularly in developed democracies. Then the pandemic hit, and the contrasting reactions by governments have accentuated the same factors that affect how people view democracy. The Cambridge report found high public satisfaction with political institutions that are transparent, responsive, and free of corruption during a period of shock.

In Europe, Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands stand out. The list extends to most Asian democracies, which saw strong public confidence in how government responded to COVID-19. Such countries met the pandemic with institutional capacity, science, transparency, and compassion. The key factor, writes scholar Francis Fukuyama in The Atlantic, is “whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state.”

That lesson should not be lost in the U.S. during an election campaign shaped by the challenge of COVID-19. A recent Pew survey found nearly 3 out of 4 voters feel that low trust in government – and in one another – makes it harder to solve urgent public problems.

Even without the usual rituals of campaigning, the 2020 election still provides an essential opportunity to affirm the tools that strengthen American democracy and heal a public health crisis. How the election is held may be as important as who wins.

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