If necessity is the mother of invention, then the COVID-19 pandemic may be the unwanted parent of a host of changes in personal behavior, voting habits and political organization.
Politics changed greatly during the Great Depression decade of the 1930s as Americans dealt with the misery of economic desperation. The role of government, which matters more in a crisis, changed and greatly expanded.
Change spurred by the pandemic’s misery could be as dramatic. The deaths and suffering due to longstanding racial and economic disparities and health issues demand solutions for working class Americans if the nation is to prosper as a whole. Voters in expanding electorates agree, as they showed in elections the past several years.
Recent election trends in Virginia and nationwide show growing numbers of voters are demanding newer and fairer deals for the working class now being hurt inordinately by the pandemic.
One key electoral tool the pandemic has expanded is voting by mail, which both parties agree is destined to change campaigning and grow the numbers of voters. Neither change is easy.
Elections run state by state and by different rules, many of which are changing out of necessity this year to protect voters and election workers.
Republican officials in 16 states are encouraging people to vote absentee this year, according to a report in the Washington Post. GOP campaigns also have perfected the art of targeting their own voters with effective pleas to vote by mail. Democrats are pushing in many states to loosen restrictions on mail voting.
Casting an absentee ballot through the mail in the 45 days before an election, as Virginia now allows, involves a bit of a clunky process and stretches out the time period for voting. Instead of a big push just prior to election day, campaigns will have to learn how to push for a month and a half.
Voting early and in person has been the easiest, and often the quickest, form of casting an absentee ballot. Usually there are no crowds in the 45 days leading up to an election when a voter stops by the local registrar’s office, but more early voting locations may have to be set up to ensure safety without too much of a crowd.
Virginia has opened absentee early voting to all voters without having to find an excuse among one of more than 20 reasons to allow a vote before Nov. 3.
Voting absentee by mail involves mailing forms and ballots back and forth and takes time, but it ensures minimal personal contact in a pandemic plus ballot access to many people unable to show up at a polling precinct on an election day.
Proposals by Democrats to allow voting by email failed this year in Virginia as skeptics pointed to too many glitches and potential problems.
Across the country, Democrats and Republicans are buying into the safety and efficacy of postal voting.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat and former presidential candidate, has introduced a bill to allow all voters the ability to vote by mail this year up to 20 days before the Nov. 3 presidential election. She points to the health risks voters faced in this month’s long lines and three-hour waits to cast a ballot in Wisconsin’s primaries.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam this month signed bills to make voting easier and more accessible. In addition to opening absentee voting by mail for all, the state just made election day a state holiday and moved spring primaries from June 11 to June 25.
The General Assembly meets April 22 to vote on other legislation amended or vetoed by Northam. He is asking the legislature to move some local elections this year from May to November out of health and safety concerns.
The only doctor governor in the nation, Northam is showing leadership in one way that may be the single most important key to taming the pandemic: respecting the role of
science. Politics isn’t going to lead the country to defeating the virus without understanding and following science, something that Northam does in his understated way.
Following the science, the personal habit of shaking hands no longer an accepted political norm, although elbow bumps may never become the preferred replacement gesture accepted by most. Northam adds the wearing of neckties may be a bad habit since studies show ties can carry more virus particles than other clothing items.
High fives also could became a pre-pandemic relic. Light fist bumps may survive if a warm touching greeting is desired.
Voting by mail is here to stay even well after businesses and offices reopen. Years of experience in many states plus safeguards against fraud show that vote-by-mail is safe and its protections for millions of voters and many thousands of poll workers are substantial.
Election officials state by state are considering how to handle new rules. They will need new workers and more funding to ensure that people can safely cast ballots on election day, or during in-person early voting.
Voting by mail this year may help save lives and put fewer people’s health at risk by cutting down or eliminating long lines of folks gathering to vote among people coughing into their cloth face coverings.