Voting in a time of crisis: How coronavirus reshaped 2020 election

Why We Wrote This

Much of what passed for standard political discourse just weeks ago now seems petty and beside the point, as the nation faces an unprecedented challenge. 

Elise Amendola/AP
Poll deputy Jerry Bangasser (right) watches as Fran Drago and her husband, Walton Davis, share hand sanitizer after voting in the Florida presidential primary, March 17, 2020, in Cape Coral, Florida.

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As measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 intensify across the country – from distance learning for millions of students, to canceled sports seasons and shuttered stores and restaurants – the impact on campaigns and elections is also becoming evident. 

Florida, Arizona, and Illinois are still holding primary elections today, albeit with some changes such as reduced polling locations, while other states opted to postpone. A dramatic scene unfolded in Ohio Monday evening as the governor postponed its primary just hours before polls were set to open.

Beyond the mechanics of elections themselves, COVID-19 is upending traditional political campaigning as we know it. Rallies, canvassing, and phone banks have been called off and replaced with virtual town halls and online barnstorms.

For many voters, the situation is also casting politics in an entirely new light, while raising the stakes of the election. It’s putting a new premium on competence in government, while simultaneously clarifying the question: Which candidate has the right qualities to lead through these uncertain times?

“This is the most important election in my lifetime,” says Rob Withrow, who owns a lawn care business and cast an early ballot for Joe Biden in Palm Bay, Florida.

This was always going to be a busy week for Leslie Swan. 

As the supervisor of elections for Indian River, a county on Florida’s mid-Atlantic coast, she had prepared all year for Tuesday’s primary: registering voters, training poll workers, and organizing precinct locations. But the past few days presented an unexpected to-do list – scouring the internet for hand sanitizer and instructing workers on how to wipe down equipment between voters.

“This was the last thing I was expecting,” says Ms. Swan, in the lobby of her office building which doubles as one of her 20 polling locations. 

As measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 intensify across the country – from distance learning for millions of students, to canceled sports seasons and shuttered stores and restaurants – the impact on campaigns and elections is also becoming evident.

[Editor's note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.] 

Florida, Arizona, and Illinois are still holding primary elections today, albeit with some changes such as reduced polling locations, and amid heightened tensions. Three other states – Louisiana, Georgia, and Kentucky – postponed their nominating contests until later in the spring. A dramatic scene unfolded in Ohio Monday evening as, just hours before polls were set to open, the governor postponed its primary, after the state health director ordered polling sites closed to avoid the risk of exposure. 

Beyond the mechanics of elections themselves, however, COVID-19 is casting a broad shadow over the 2020 campaign – upending traditional political campaigning as we know it. Rallies, canvassing, and phone banks have been called off and replaced with virtual town halls and online barnstorms. In a sign of the times, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders debated on Sunday in an empty studio, standing six feet apart. 

And for many voters, the situation has put politics in an entirely new light, raising the stakes of the election. Much of what passed for standard political discourse just weeks ago now seems petty and beside the point, as the nation faces an unprecedented challenge. For many, it’s putting a new premium on competence in government, while simultaneously clarifying the voting booth question: Which candidate has the right qualities to lead through these uncertain times?

“While the pandemic is disrupting our systems, it really does underscore that need for leadership in a way that is really palpable to people,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “It underscores the importance of government.”

“The most important election in my lifetime”

On Friday, as Rob Withrow leaves the Palm Bay Community Center, a single-story mustard building blocks away from mobile home parks and the Indian River, he squints into the bright morning light and rubs a fresh dollop of hand sanitizer between his hands. Mr. Withrow cast an early ballot for Mr. Biden – the first time he has ever voted in a primary election, he says. 

“This is the most important election in my lifetime,” says Mr. Withrow, who owns a lawn care business. “Biden doesn’t make stuff up like our current president. ... Trump isn’t the person who’s going to be able to fix this.”

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Retirees Jane and Charlie Holstein set up a tent for the Brevard County Republicans outside a polling location in Palm Bay, Florida, March 13, 2020. They say President Donald Trump has already proved his ability to act decisively to address the pandemic.

Dozens of other Floridians interviewed say they feel more strongly than ever about the importance of voting in their state’s primary, feeling certain that their candidate is best able to steer the country through this crisis. Jeffery Nall, an adjunct humanities professor in Vero Beach who started a local Facebook page for Bernie Sanders in 2016, says COVID-19 has made it more evident than ever that the country needs a President Sanders to enact universal health care. 

The same goes for Republican voters, even though their primary is largely symbolic. Retirees Jane and Charlie Holstein, who are standing under a red tent with a “Brevard County Republicans” banner across the parking lot from Mr. Withrow’s car, say President Donald Trump has already shown his ability to act decisively to address the pandemic. Mr. Trump is an “experienced manager,” says Ms. Holstein, wearing a “Trump 2020” hat and matching elephant jewelry – and that extends into crisis management. A man leaving the Palm Bay Community Center yells out, “I agree with ya!” to the Holsteins, who wave in return. 

“Trump knows how to select the right people,” says Mr. Holstein. “Pence has got everybody who’s anybody in the medical fields. They’re all doing a great job, and I don’t know how people could expect any better.” 

Voters and political scientists alike take guesses about which candidate might be hurt most by the various unexpected factors now affecting campaigns. Big, energetic rallies – a mainstay of both Mr. Sanders’ and Mr. Trump’s campaigns – are off the table for now. But while a drop in campaign events might benefit Mr. Biden, his supporters also skew older than Mr. Sanders’, and may be more fearful about turning out to vote. 

Indeed, as soon as retirees John and Barbara Spilman file out of the Indian River County Library with “I voted” stickers on their chests, they pass a small bottle of hand sanitizer back and forth. Like Mr. Withrow, they say they would have rather voted on Tuesday because it feels more patriotic, but decided voting early was better for their health. 

“The main thing they tell you,” says Ms. Spilman, “is to stay away from a lot of people in small spaces.”

Looking ahead to November

A looming question is how states will conduct the 33 remaining primaries and caucuses, with the White House now recommending no gatherings of more than 10 people for at least the next 15 days. Many states are considering expanding their vote-by-mail operations. Monday evening, a group of organizations filed a lawsuit against Florida for not extending its vote-by-mail deadline.

Unsurprisingly, turnout on Tuesday appeared to be low. In Illinois, when a reporter asked the spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections if low turnout was a blessing given reports of unexpectedly absent poll workers, he responded: “I would never call low turnout a blessing. I would call conducting an election in the midst of a global pandemic a curse.” 

Still, many experts point out that the coronavirus crisis hit at a point when the Democratic primary already seemed somewhat settled, after Mr. Biden’s big win on Super Tuesday and the following week had given him a sizable lead in the delegate count.  

“Even if we didn’t have the coronavirus concerns, turnout would go down because the dynamics have changed,” says Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. “November – now that’s the direction we need to think about.” 

Indeed, if the U.S. wants to make sure it is prepared for November’s general election, says Ms. Weiser with the Brennan Center, now is the time to start. If there needs to be a mass increase in the creation and distribution of mail-in ballots, for example, now is the time for Congress to allocate funds so firms can begin printing. 

Eleven gubernatorial seats, 35 U.S. Senate seats, and all 435 House seats will be on the ballot in November, in addition to the race for the White House. In an op-ed in The Washington Post on Tuesday, Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden said they would be introducing legislation soon to make sure that every American will have the option to vote by mail. They would also expand early voting to reduce the risk of infection from long lines and crowds.  

“We have held elections in all sorts of crises, in the midst of hurricanes and civil war,” says Ms. Weiser. “We just need to make it fair – and get on top of it now.”

Editor's note: As a public service, we've removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It's free. 

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