Upholding Democracy in a Crisis

Photo courtesy Michael Stokes, Flickr

By Kevin Hartung

Whether states are enforcing their shelter-in-place stances or candidates have deferred to the advice of social distancing, canvassing, stump speeches, town halls, debates, primaries and campaigns have taken a hit in this election cycle. 

The CDC now recommends that gatherings instead be turned into virtual events.

“Events of any size should only be continued if they can be carried out with adherence to guidelines for protecting vulnerable populations, hand hygiene, and social distancing,” the CDC said. “When feasible, organizers could modify events to be virtual.”

The president’s Coronavirus Guidelines advised all Americans to avoid groups of more than 10 and urged older people to stay at home altogether in a set of new guidelines.

Polling place volunteers are in the over-60 age group and may have contributed to decisions to postpone primary elections. 

Another six states have joined Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland and Ohio in postponing or modifying their primaries.

Alaska: On March 23, the Alaska Democratic Party moved its party-run primary to entirely vote-by-mail, getting rid of in-person voting. The Alaska Republican Party said its Republican State Convention, which is scheduled to take place from April 2 to April 4, would convene electronically.

Connecticut: Gov. Ned Lamont tweeted on March 19 that Connecticut would move its primary from April 28 to June 2. 

Deleware: Democratic Delaware Gov. John Carney announced on March 24 that he had modified his State of Emergency Declaration to delay the state’s primary from April 28 to June 2.

Indiana: Gov. Eric Holcomb announced March 20 that Indiana would move its primary from May 5 to June 2.

Puerto Rico: Gov. Wanda Vázquez signed into law March 21 a resolution moving the democratic presidential primary from March 29 to April 26.

Rhode Island: Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order March 23 moving the Democratic and Republican presidential primary elections from April 28 to June 2. 

The CNN-Univision Democratic presidential debate, originally scheduled to take place in Phoenix, was transferred to a CNN studio in Washington, D.C. It is unique in that from a field of 29 potential candidates only two, Biden and Sanders, were left to participate in the debate.

Moderator Dana Bash’s opening statement clarified the special content of the debate.

“We come together tonight at an extraordinary time in our country when people are worried about far more than just presidential politics. We’re in a national emergency because of the devastating global pandemic of coronavirus. It has killed nearly 6,000 people around the world, and 65 dead and more than 3,300 known cases here in the United States. As a result, tonight’s debate will focus heavily on the crisis.” 

On a humorous note, during the CNN Democratic debate, after pointing out that Sanders had suffered a heart attack, moderator Trapper asked Sanders how he is protecting himself.

“I mean, last night we had a – a fireside chat, not a rally. I love doing rallies, and we bring many thousands of people out to our rallies. I enjoy it very much. We’re not doing that right now,” Sanders said.

“In fact, our entire staff is working from home right now. So, on a personal level, what we’re doing is I’m not shaking hands. Joe and I did not shake hands,” he said, drawing laughs.

Biden, who pointed out he did not have underlying conditions like a heart attack, responded, “And that is I’m going to make sure that I do not – I do not shake hands any longer; I do not engage – we did the same thing. Our staff are all working from home. We are not doing rallies any longer. We’re doing virtual rallies. We’re doing virtual town hall meetings.”

Other debate topics surrounding the coronavirus pandemic included healthcare and covering and paying for the millions of Americans without insurance who were being affected by the virus.

The candidates discussed economic relief for thousands of Americans losing jobs because of restaurant closures, absences due to contracting the virus or caring for a family member with the virus. 

It also included immigration with immigrants, who fear being deported, not seeking medical attention because of deportation and spreading the virus or dying. 

Finally, they touched on the pharmaceutical industry. According to Sanders, “In the midst of this epidemic, you got people in the pharmaceutical industry who are saying, ‘Oh, wow, what an opportunity to make a fortune.’ ” 

Besides the debates, an article in the Los Angeles Times described on March 13 the stressful era of the COVID-19 virus on political campaigns.

According to the article, the business-as-usual democratic process has been sidelined, “halting candidates’ and organizers’ ability to campaign and get their message out.” Both Biden and Sanders’ campaign staffers are working from home and using phone banking and other digital media to campaign. 

That article further points out that voters may be unable to get to the polls and exercise their voting privilege.

It becomes apparent that the next question to be asked is if the presidential election scheduled for Nov. 3 will be held or if that too is threatened by the virus. 

According to a March 17 article in USA Today online, that is an unlikely possibility. Although presidential primary dates can arbitrarily be changed as long as someone is picked by August, that does not hold for November’s presidential election, which requires an act of Congress to change, making it “highly unlikely.”

Edward Foley, an election law professor at Ohio State University, believes our focus should switch from “if we have an election” to “how do we hold the election in November.” 

Foley is adamant that we will have an election but is concerned that the method used must ensure “a result that conforms to the idea that it’s the ‘will of the people.’ ”

In the end, controversies over who will make the best president have taken second place to whether we can have a fair and honest election in the face of this pandemic.

All voters need to make their voices heard through their state representatives on what they view as the best way to proceed with our Nov. 3 presidential election.  Otherwise, we may have no choice but to accept those next in line for a presidential vacancy.

Leaving out the president and vice president, next in line would be the current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. However, if congressional elections also were not held, Pelosi’s term would end Jan. 3, leaving president pro tempore Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, as acting president according to federal law.

The same USA Today article reports on one expert, Matthew Kavanagh, a political scientist and Assistant Professor of Global Health at Georgetown University, point of view on possible disturbance of our democratic processes.

“Even disrupting primaries is problematic because it disrupts our democratic process and undermines the norms and institutions of democracy at a time when people are scared,” Kavanagh said of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. “And that’s never a good thing.”

Kavanagh said he’s concerned about the United States maintaining those democratic norms and civil liberties in the face of  “authoritarian measures” to combat the outbreak. He said the United States must think about how to “deepen democratic practice” this year including voting by mail. It could be a challenge because of the mistrust of government institutions that many Americans hold. 

“It is unconscionable that we are at this moment facing this pandemic without a plan for how to conduct elections. This pandemic was completely foreseeable,” Kavanagh said.

Mistrust of government institutions is another way of saying let your voices be heard through your state representatives to Washington, D.C. This year, above all else, make sure your votes count.  

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