COVID-19 has upended the U.S. election campaign and could also change how Americans vote

It may not be the leading worry for most Americans right now, but amid the anxiety over coronavirus, another kind of concern is quietly growing in this country: how to deal with the coming presidential election.

Race may become a referendum on Trump's handling of coronavius pandemic; Americans may be voting by mail

The coronavirus pandemic is already affecting the U.S. election campaign, cancelling rallies like this one held by U.S. President Donald Trump at the start of last month in Charlotte, N.C. It may also change how voters cast their ballots on Nov. 3. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

It may not be the leading worry for most Americans right now, but amid the anxiety over coronavirus, another kind of concern is quietly growing in the United States: how to deal with the coming presidential election.

First among all questions is the big one: Is it possible that the Nov. 3 election itself could be cancelled and that Donald Trump would extend his own presidency in the name of a national emergency?

"The answer is no," said Marc Elias, a Democratic election lawyer and voting rights advocate.

"Federal law sets the date of the general election … and absent an act of Congress, the date won't change. A state can't change it. Donald Trump can't change it."

But Elias underlines that there are myriad challenges nonetheless.

In the age of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, he says, consider the otherwise straightforward act of casting a ballot.

After all, who would want to stand in line on Election Day with so many other voters — any one of which could be carrying the virus? Countless may choose to stay home for their own safety and not vote at all.

How to isolate at polling stations?

Then there are the actual polling stations. Typically, they're staffed by volunteers who themselves tend to be civic-minded retirees. But with warnings for everyone, especially seniors, to avoid crowds, who will volunteer?

"Would you do that right now?" said Elias. "With COVID, would you be the person who is, you know, two feet away, checking people's I.D., swapping driver's licenses back and forth or handing people ballots?"

If the election goes ahead as planned, voters might not line up to cast their ballots as they did in Woodstock, N.H., in 2016. If they can't vote remotely, they may opt to stay home. (Jim Cole/The Associated Press)

One effect of that could be fewer polling stations everywhere, with resulting reduced access for voters. Especially in states where margins are historically tight, the potential looms for legal challenges on behalf of those who wanted to vote but were prevented from doing so.

Among the suggested answers is to more broadly utilize the U.S. Postal Service. 

"We're going to see more and more people insist on voting by mail," said Elias.  

But even that has its complications.  

To all of a sudden conduct a nationwide vote by mail risks overwhelming the U.S. Postal Service, Elias says.

And while some states already allow voting by mail, the rules vary from place to place.

For example, some states allow it only for voters with a valid "excuse," which itself raises a particular hypothetical for the 2020 election.

"You're going to see voters say that their 'excuse' is fear of COVID, and then states are going to have to confront a legal issue about, 'Is that a valid excuse?' said Elias.

Need to act now

Elias emphasizes that the imperative is to address all of this now to guarantee a safe environment for voting and to ramp up voting by mail.

"I think Congress needs to get ahead of this and ensure that we have a system that works for everyone," he said.

 "If not, we're going to have a real crisis."

Then there's the political side.

Out of concerns that having thousands of delegates pack themselves into an enclosed arena for a political event is far too risky right now, Democrats have bumped their nominating convention from July to August as they continue to discuss possibly holding a virtual convention, though it's unclear how that would work.

For Trump, the election could be a referendum on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He has been centre stage in press briefings and wore a campaign hat during a visit to the Centres for Disease control in Atlanta in March. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via The Associated Press)

And though many presume Joe Biden will ultimately be the party's choice to take on Donald Trump for the White House, the fact is there's still a contest underway to determine that.

Bernie Sanders has not stepped aside nor has he signaled a willingness to do so, even as primary campaign events are being cancelled or delayed.

Indeed, a variety of states have now postponed their primaries because of COVID-19 as they scramble to find a way to conduct them safely.

Virtual conventions could replace in-person events

And as for the actual presidential campaigns this fall, the candidates can almost certainly forget about huge rallies with thousands of supporters under one roof, or for that matter, glad-handing out on main streets.

"I think we may see the first presidential campaign that is all television, all video," said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist and advisor to the Sanders campaign in 2016.

Democratic contender Joe Biden, left, is the frontrunner to become the party's presidential candidate,but Bernie Sanders, right, is still in the race. Several states are wrestling with how to hold their primaries amid community lockdowns. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

That said, a purely video campaign may not be such a bad thing, Longabaugh said.

Say goodbye to candidates jumping onto stages shouting slogans that play to raucous crowds and hello to voters sitting in their living rooms quietly watching candidates on TV and listening carefully.

It's one potential result of the ongoing COVID-19 community lockdowns.

"News ratings are going through the roof," said Longabaugh. "Because people are all at home. They're cooped up there looking for information. And I think … we actually could have a very informed debate this fall, by the video screen.

"Voters are obviously paying attention."

A lot will hinge on Trump's COVID-19 response

Into all that comes the pitch from the candidates themselves.

In a sense, the TV campaigning has already begun with Trump now holding almost daily briefings on COVID-19 from the White House while Biden, by contrast, battles for airtime with virtual briefings from an ad hoc studio in his basement.

Biden has been holding press briefings from an ad hoc studio in the basement of his home in Delaware ever since the coronavirus pandemic put an end to the usual campaign rallies. (Biden for President via The Associated Press)

Trump's approval ratings have meanwhile gone up. His briefings are, as he's put it, "a ratings hit."

But despite all the presidential attention, he's also taken heat from many who've criticized his response to the crisis.

Indeed, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the long-held presumption had been that the 2020 election would hinge on a single ballot box question for all voters: Thumbs up or thumbs down on Donald Trump.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple says that likely still holds true. But it now includes the overriding assessment of Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"There's no question about it," said Wemple.

Democrats and their supporters, he says, are almost certainly sharpening their fall campaign messaging on that already.

"I think when we get to September and October and so on, you will see tonnes of ads … using his tweets and his public pronouncements, [his] dismissive public pronouncements about coronavirus," he said.

"And they will use those against President Trump."

Biden's brand in contrast, suggests Longabaugh, will be one of experience and a steady hand in times of crisis.

Then again, there's always the chance the corona nightmare will have somehow abated by late fall and that the U.S. economy — another key driver of votes — will rebound, perhaps changing the tenor of the campaign altogether.

Or that voters ultimately see the crisis as a kind of natural disaster for which the president ought not be blamed.

But all of that remains a long way off.

"It's extraordinary times," said Longabaugh.

 "We've just got to figure out a way for everyone to get out and vote safely."


Paul Hunter

Foreign correspondent

Paul Hunter is a correspondent for CBC News in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he was a political correspondent for The National in Ottawa. In his more than two decades with the CBC, he has reported from across Canada and more than a dozen countries, including Haiti, Japan and Afghanistan.

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