Amid the tumult of coronavirus, the US presidential election still looms. Speculation abounds about how the crisis will affect Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s political fortunes in November. But a more important issue is not receiving enough attention: coronavirus risks upending the mechanics of the presidential election, perhaps even threatening its legitimacy.
The problems in holding an election during a pandemic are to a degree issues of public health. Election officials need to ensure that the election itself does not spread the disease, that voters and election workers feel safe at the polls, and that they provide reliable methods of remote voting in place of in-person voting. These are difficult issues, but they are far from insurmountable. South Korea has already demonstrated that the technology exists, using remote voting and distanced polling procedures, to hold a free and fair election even under current conditions.
The more intractable issues are the political ones. In the United States, the Republican party is a minority governing party that believes it can only win by suppressing turnout among potential democratic voters. The Democratic party agrees – and so wants to promote voter turnout as much as possible. For the Republicans, this may involve using the coercive power of the state. In short, it may soon be time to stop worrying about democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland and to focus instead on the world’s leading democracy.
A Tribal Election
It is fun to believe that American voters are evaluating how Trump is handling the virus. But they are not. After a brief bump, his approval ratings remain essentially as they have always been – mired in the low- to mid-40s. As with most issues in recent years, voters overwhelmingly see the coronavirus crisis through a partisan lens and, no matter what happens, use it to reinforce their pre-existing beliefs.
The 2020 election has become almost entirely tribal, meaning everyone basically votes according to party, with very few swing voters. The vast majority of voters (at least 94 percent) have already decided which party they will vote for, as have over 40 states.
Importantly, turnout varies much more than voting choices and can easily swamp any marginal swing voter effects. If turnout in 2016 had equalled 2008 levels in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton would have easily won the election. Since then, the Trump effect has energised voters on both sides. Astoundingly, at the 2018 congressional election, turnout rose from 36 percent to 50 percent relative to the previous midterms.
With only slight exaggeration, we already know how everyone in America would vote. What we do not know is who will turn up to vote and whether those voters will be allowed to vote. It does not matter much who has the best idea for virus testing procedures or who is toughest on China. It matters who can best generate enthusiasm among his voters (and dampen it among his opponents), get his voters to the polls, and organise efforts to ensure his voters can vote – and perhaps that his opponents’ cannot.
The Republican Dilemma
The tribal nature of voting presents a problem for the Republican party, largely because there are fewer Republican voters than Democratic ones. The Republicans have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. They control the Senate despite having received over 25 million fewer votes than their Democratic opponents over the last three elections (one full election cycle for the Senate). Despite their minority status, they have maintained a majority on an increasingly partisan Supreme Court for nearly 50 years. The Republicans are already effectively a minority governing party, kept in office by institutions such as the electoral college and the Senate, which overweight rural votes.
Meanwhile, demographic change, particularly the growth in non-white populations that tend to vote democratic, makes this trick ever more difficult. Every four years the share of the non-white population increases about 2 percent. In an environment of tribal voting, minority rule, and demographic change adverse to them, Republicans believe they have little choice but to use their current institutional advantages to seek to alter who votes.
All these issues predate coronavirus and they have provoked various ingenious efforts by both parties. Most prominently, this has involved a national struggle in the courts and state legislatures over how easy it should be to vote. Republicans claim there is an epidemic of voter fraud and have sought to increase standards for voter registration, remote voting, and voter identification at the polls. Democrats claim no voter fraud problem exists and that these efforts represent an attempt to disenfranchise potential democratic voters, particularly minorities who tend to have lower turnout and more difficulty overcoming bureaucratic obstacles to voting. Less prominently, both parties have allegedly engaged in various dirty tricks to confuse their opponent’s voters and discourage turnout of key constituencies.
Republicans may seek to use the public health authorities to stoke fear of the health effects of voting
The coronavirus, despite its far-reaching effects, will not fundamentally change the dynamic of existing tribal politics. Democrats see an opportunity in the coronavirus to expand methods of remote voting – mail-in voting and internet voting – that could ultimately increase turnout. Republicans seek to resist those efforts and may use the restrictions caused by the virus to make going to the polls harder and scarier. The recent imbroglio over the April Wisconsin primary election gives some sense of how this struggle will be waged.
Nobody knows what this means for November because we have no idea what the state of public health efforts will look like in six months. Whatever happens, the most perilous aspects of such election manipulations, as always, will come from the governing party. Beyond the shenanigans of the campaigns and the courtroom hijinks that both sides already practise, the Republicans can avail themselves of the enormous power of the executive branch. Trump has primed the pump by frequently accusing the democrats of trying to steal the election.
If, as is commonly predicted, the US economy is mired in a deep recession and the president’s chances of re-election look slimmer, the Republicans may seek to use the public health authorities to stoke fear of the health effects of voting, or to establish new standards for health protections at polling places, or to close polling stations to slow voting – all while simultaneously rejecting alternative means of voting. They could additionally use their emergency powers to place additional police or even National Guard forces at polling places in the name of either health or security concerns. The mere presence of these forces would have the effect of discouraging minority voting.
From the Republican perspective, it would be unpatriotic not to use all the means at their disposal to avoid allowing the Democratic party and its growing numbers of minority supporters to seize power. Unfortunately, as we have seen in central Europe, this sense that a lack of democratic procedure is necessary to save the republic is precisely how liberalism ends.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.