As life in a pandemic continues to progress with no real end in sight (outside of a vaccine becoming widely available in a very short period of time), it seems almost a force of cosmic irony that we are experiencing this unprecedented moment of disruption during what is shaping up to be one of the most consequential election cycles in our nation’s history.
It’s not just presidential politics, either. While D.C. will always hold center stage as the main attraction for politicos and political commentators to gravitate attention towards, the most important battles across the country happen in small races you’ll likely never hear about. These are the bouts for local mayoral and city council positions, state legislative seats and U.S. Congress races that can swing power in either direction between political parties and re-color the fabric of the nation.
But now, thanks to COVID, many of the foundational structures of what winning campaigns in this country have been based upon – things like door-to-door canvassing, massive fundraising parties and cramming interns into war rooms to phone bank and stuff envelopes – have been turned on their heads. Utilizing such methods in today’s world would not only be seen as politically tone deaf, but could actively work against a politician seeking to advertise their brand and efficacy as a candidate; at least in areas where the virus is treated as a serious threat to public health.
It will be interesting to see how candidates adjust to this curveball. Social media has become incredibly powerful in terms of spreading political messages – however we’ve also seen how delicate and potentially dangerous that power is, as fake news spreads quicker and more potently than any COVID-19 hot spot. What other ways might candidates look to spread awareness of their campaigns? Will this give an even greater advantage to those candidates who have a savvier use of new technologies?
Putting aside the plight of candidates seeking office, there are many unanswered questions about how the voting process itself should actually – or will actually – be conducted. Mail-in ballots have already generated controversy, with Republicans espousing the notion that widespread fraud could be imminent without safeguards that Democrats deem draconian and disenfranchising. You could make a compelling argument for either side.
Interestingly enough, Democratic Rhode Island shares a restrictive voting policy in common with only one other state – Alabama – that has prompted a lawsuit from the ACLU, as the state currently requires a notary or two witnesses to sign off for a mail-in ballot to be accepted. Whether this will be addressed prior to November remains to be seen.
Perhaps there’s an ability to work with local town and city clerks to somehow streamline this process, where voters can slowly and methodically, by appointment, physically pick up a mail-in ballot and get it approved by the clerk (who is always authorized to be a notary) right then and there, leaving you able to mail it in at whatever point you’re able to thereafter.
Then there’s the issue of who will be actually working at polling stations (or if polling stations will even be open). If even a limited number of polling stations will be open, the state will need hundreds of volunteers to staff them. These positions are normally filled by older citizens who have the ability to work during normal business hours – the same population of people most at risk of succumbing to the virus.
All told, it is shaking up to be a major logistical nightmare, so much so that Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is already talking about bringing in the National Guard to assist with processing applicants for mail-in ballots – something we’re sure that nobody who signed up for the National Guard probably ever expected would be among their responsibilities.
While we would like to have blind faith that our nation – which was built on the tenant of holding free and impartial elections where the people ultimately decide who will govern them – we can’t help but feel extremely apprehensive that this degree of uncertainty and disruption will be a fertile ground for all kinds of malfeasance, from voter fraud to purposeful or incidental disenfranchisement.
Governors, legislative bodies and Secretaries of State – as well as our nation’s very foundational structure – will be tested like never before this November and the months leading up to it, not only in terms of who will emerge victorious once the dust settles, but in how we handle this unprecedented moment of electoral chaos.