Elections Commission (copy)

“Election day, November 5, 1918, came and went, without a single political rally or campaign dinner,” Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Northwestern reported in the midst of the 1918 influenza pandemic that the Centers for Disease Control identifies as “the most severe pandemic in recent history."

The pandemic led to an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide — roughly 675,000 of them in the United States — and it transformed every activity in which people engaged, including elections. While it is hard to assess where the impact of World War I intersected with the impact of the influenza outbreak, turnout that Nov. 5 election was way down — from 50.4% in the previous midterm election of 1914 to 39.9% in 1918. When the ballots were counted, Republicans had won complete control of Congress, taking both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in a decade.

Disease outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics have always raised election issues. Some of those issues involve parties and candidates, as we are reminded by President Trump’s troublesome response to the coronavirus outbreak — which has featured unwarranted charges that “Washington Democrats are trying to politicize the coronavirus” — and by headlines such as CNN’s “Coronavirus could cost Trump the election, Goldman Sachs warns.”

As we get reports of a rising death toll, new cases in new places, and cancellations of events in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease, our attention must move beyond matters of political positioning and calculation to the question of whether the voting process itself might be threatened.

This is about more than the coronavirus.

This is about how a country with uneven and frequently dysfunctional voting systems should prepare for a crisis that might demand emergency responses to maintain a fully functioning and reliable democracy. Advance planning gives election officials options when dealing with calls — by sincere health administrators or self-serving politicians. In the midst of man-made or natural disasters, it may be that a brief postponement is required to avoid extreme low turnout — as happened when New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary was rescheduled after voting had begun on Sept. 11, 2001. In the case of a contagious disease threat, however, a fallback plan for voting by mail or through other strategies is the preferred and possible response. But to get things right, protocols and plans must be in place before a threat becomes a crisis.

Unfortunately, says U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, the Town of Vermont Democrat who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, “There’s nothing that they’ve even expressed to us on the elections side.”

Super Tuesday saw election officials address the threat by taking basic steps to protect public health — such as urging people who felt sick to vote by mail in states such as California, where it is very easy to do so. But what about the states that have yet to hold primaries, like Wisconsin on April 7? What about this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee — when thousands of delegates, alternates, reporters and hangers-on will jet in from all over the country and around the world? What about the November election?

Experts have warned that public health and economic challenges related to coronavirus are likely to become more severe before things get better.

“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, late in February.

Around the same time, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said, “We should all be dusting off our pandemic preparedness plans and rehearse them very quickly.”

Among the plans that need dusting off, or development, are strategies for holding elections in a time of crisis — like, say, a pandemic. Warnings of what could happen are being sounded. In a recent Wired article headlined “Coronavirus May Disrupt the 2020 Election. We Need a Plan,” Jon Stokes, the deputy editor of ThePrepared.com, argued that “it’s time for Americans to begin to think through how to pull off a national election against the backdrop of a pandemic that would surely see voter turnout significantly suppressed, especially in dense urban areas and among vulnerable populations.”

Time magazine just highlighted the election concerns and featured an ominous warning: "Maurice Turner, an expert in election security at the Center for Democracy and Technology, says fears about contracting the new coronavirus are just part of the battle. Officials—and voters—must also grapple with the possibility that bad actors are willfully spreading misinformation about the virus in an effort to depress voter turn out, or to manipulate which populations turns out to vote."

Expanding existing programs for voting by mail, Stokes suggests, would be “a straightforward fix.” And there may be more fixes, but right now, as he reminds us, there’s just a gap. While some states have laws for postponing elections and contingency plans to “fall back on some combination of existing early voting, vote-by-mail, and absentee ballot options in an emergency,” we lack a “national plan for what to do about the election if a coronavirus outbreak puts our cities on lockdown and fills our hospitals in November.”

“Look no further than the Iowa caucuses,” Pocan, who sits on health-related subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee, said. Noting the disaster that occurred when the failure of apps and backup strategies stalled the counting of this year’s first-in-the-nation vote, he said, “If you don’t have a plan and things go wrong, it’s chaos. And when we’re talking about coronavirus, we should be doing everything we can to avoid chaos.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.