The United States held a presidential election during World War II. It held one during the Civil War. It held an off-year election during the worst of the influenza pandemic in 1918.
Several states postponed presidential primaries this month as part of the effort to tamp down the COVID-19 outbreak. These were justifiable decisions. Not only do elections draw people to central locations to cast their ballots, the majority of election judges are in the age group believed to be most at risk of serious infection from the novel coronavirus. (Illinois and Florida, which went ahead with their primaries as the virus began to take hold, found turnout lower than usual, both by voters and poll workers.)
Putting off, or even canceling altogether, presidential primaries is one thing. There is no serious doubt today of who the nominees will be, even if no further primaries are ever held. Tampering with the timing of the general election is another.
Not only is the date of the November election set by federal law and thus not subject to the edict of individual states, holding the election is vital to democracy.
But states do have a great deal of control over the mechanics of the election, and nobody can be sure of the course of this pandemic. It has already shaken our daily routines and crippled the economy, and it is well on its way to crashing our health care system.
President Donald Trump’s fantasy that it will all be over by Easter not withstanding, the experts say COVID-19 may dominate American life for months.
These two apparently contradictory imperatives — holding the election as scheduled and protecting public health — can be accomodated, of course. The obvious answer is an expansion of voting by mail. Some states, such as Oregon, now hold their elections entirely by mail. There are voting precincts in this area that are strictly vote-by-mail, and even where there are central polling places, Minnesotans in recent elections have increasingly opted for early and absentee voting.
We understand the argument that the act of going to a polling place to cast one’s ballot is a valuable social act. In this year of pandemic and social distancing, that act today is a hazard, and it may well be so still in November. Those states that have resisted vote-by-mail should reconsider.