Can Democracy Survive Coronavirus?

U.S. News & World Report

The pandemic threatens elections, and experts worry Americans’ rights could be curtailed.

by Susan Mulligan, Senior Political Writer

April 3, 2020

STATE PRIMARY ELECTIONS have been delayed, and experts fret about how to hold a credible and accessible general election in November. Congress is out until at least April 20, and many state legislatures have suspended their sessions. Government buildings are closed. The Trump administration wants “emergency” powers to allow suspects to be detained indefinitely, while abroad, world leaders are using the pandemic to seize more power.

The novel coronavirus has already claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people worldwide. Will democracy be the next casualty?

Crises often lead governments to take extraordinary measures, whether it’s increasing security, expanding surveillance and other government powers or limiting rights citizens had come to take for granted. But the global pandemic presents risks to democratic institutions unprecedented in modern times, experts say, whether it’s unsavory leaders using the virus as an excuse to demand more authority or civically inclined officials struggling to figure out how to keep democratic institutions going without endangering public health.

“We all want to come out of this crisis alive, but we also want our political systems, democracy, to survive,” Jonas Parello-Plesner, executive director of the Alliance for Democracies, which held a webcast Thursday from Copenhagen, Denmark, on the ways different countries were responding to the crisis.

“There are a range of ways in which the pandemic is creating new threats and exacerbating old stresses on our democracy,” says Wendy Weiser, head of the democracy center at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. “This is a momentous event that has opportunities and risks. We have the opportunity to reassert not just national unity but national commitment to our democratic systems. Similarly, there is a great risk that people can take advantage of the confusion and fear around the coronavirus to gut or erode our democracy.”

Abroad, democracy-watchers are looking anxiously at Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban – notably, a dissident when Russian communists controlled his country – has been given new powers by parliament that effectively let him rule by decree. Orban now also has the ability to impose harsh penalties for free speech and those who violate quarantine rules.

In the nominally democratic Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered police to shoot dead anyone “who creates trouble” during the lockdown in Luzon, the nation’s most populous island. Israel recently assumed the right to gather personal information, including cellphone location data, of those diagnosed with the virus or suspected to have it.

In the United States, such drastic measures have not occurred, and legal and political experts don’t expect the government to try. But there are other threats to democratic institutions here that could curtail citizens’ rights or undermine public faith in America’s elections, they warn.

Attorney General William Barr has asked Congress to allow the Department of Justice to petition judges to hold people indefinitely during an emergency and to pause the statute of limitations during such times. (The idea, first reported by Politico, was roundly rejected by both Democratic and Republican senators.) States and cities have imposed stay-at-home orders that allow some exceptions for essential work and errands.

But most at risk is the basic machinery of democracy – the multi-layered process of nominating candidates for office and conducting a general election in November. Several states have already delayed their primaries, not only to protect voters but because poll workers are afraid to staff the polling stations.

“There is a great risk that people can take advantage of the confusion and fear around the coronavirus to gut or erode our democracy.”

The Democratic National Committee on Thursday delayed its national convention, previously scheduled for July in Milwaukee to August. But the state is still going ahead Tuesday with its presidential primary, despite the fact that officials warned earlier this week that they are short nearly 7,000 poll workers.

It’s not unprecedented for primaries not to go off as they have in recent history, says John Geer, dean of the College of Art and Science at Vanderbilt University, noting that up until 1972 the primaries were more advisory than determinative (Hubert Humphrey, for example, got the 1968 Democratic nomination without winning a single primary). “What the real issue is, how are we going to make sure there’s as much participation as possible in the fall, if social distancing is still in place?” Geer says.

And in the case of next week’s scheduled primary, “Wisconsin is the canary in the coal mine” for the November elections, Weiser says. President Donald Trump can’t simply cancel the elections (which are run by states), experts note. But if hardly anyone shows up – or if turnout is minimal because there aren’t enough people to staff them – Americans won’t have faith in the result, they say.

“We need to start thinking now, in the states, about different ways of allowing people to vote in a secure way,” says former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, executive chairman and co-founder of The Chertoff Group. “What do you do if the virus continues in November and people have difficulty getting to the polls? It’s not too soon to plan.”

Chertoff agrees with a mounting call for increased vote-by-mail elections. Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah – conduct elections entirely by mail, while 21 other states allow some mail-in voting. No-excuses absentee voting (meaning voters don’t have to give an approved reason for not voting in person on Election Day) and curbside voting, whereby voters can drop off a ballot without getting out of the car, are also good options, Chertoff says. Some states offer curbside voting now, but not always for all voters. Virginia, for example, allows the practice for voters with disabilities or who are 65 and older.

States control their own elections and would have to make the changes, but Congress could offer federal money in exchange for states doing those reforms, he says.

The downside is that Americans might need to lose the expectation of an election night announcement of the next president, since mail ballots can take weeks to count, Chertoff says, but it’s an inconvenience made worth it by expanding voter access.

Some communities, such as those on Native American tribal lands, aren’t as well-served by the U.S. postal system, and mail-in ballots should include pre-paid postage so citizens don’t have to pay for the right to cast a ballot, says Karen Hobert-Flynn, president of Common Cause. But she’s for any idea that “makes sure there’s fair and safe voting for all.”

“Even as we are worried about this public health threat, we need to remember that it can’t distract us from the ways we can fight it,” Hobert-Flynn says. “That means we have to come together locally, nationally and internationally to stop the spread (of the virus) and part of that is ensuring our democracy continues to function.”

Hoping, experts say, that the virus doesn’t deliver the lethal blow.