The Pandemic Improved U.S. Elections

As recovery from the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion is running a series of columns looking at crisis-inspired innovations that promise better living over the long run — from more resilient economies, cleaner cities and healthier offices to five-star meal kits, better telemedicine and no more airline change fees.

One of the startling adaptations to the pandemic was in how the 2020 U.S. general elections were administered. It was a stunning success, on several levels, that few saw coming. And it was a success in the face of strong opposition from Donald Trump’s White House and from many Republicans following Trump’s lead.

Faced with a sudden and unprecedented situation — millions of voters who were justifiably terrified of queuing up in crowded indoor polling places — states and local governments devised a number of workarounds. No-excuse absentee voting, drop boxes for completed ballots, drive-through voting and new safety protocols for in-person voting were all hastily rolled out by both Democratic and (with, alas, some exceptions) Republican elected officials. It wasn’t just governments. Thousands of young (or at least relatively young) people rushed to train to become poll workers to replace the elderly men and women who normally handle that job but were especially vulnerable to the virus.

The news media also did an excellent job. That started with publicizing the logistical problems encountered in spring primaries, where states like Wisconsin and Georgia were unprepared. And then they did an excellent job of relaying voting totals on election night and the week that followed, explaining that big shifts in totals as various groups of ballots were counted was expected and perfectly kosher. 

And both election officials and the media were guided, in many cases, by experienced practitioners and academic experts who mobilized to spread new best practices and crucial information about how things would be different in a pandemic.

What should we take away from this?

The big positive lesson is that the decentralized voting practices in the U.S. are more robust than many believed. That doesn’t mean that national regulation or assistance is a bad idea. But we should take seriously the advantages, as well as the disadvantages, of the unusually spread-out nature of U.S. election administration. In particular, the fact that some states already had long experience with many forms of voting by mail gave other states a head start when they wanted to expand their own absentee-voting practices. The 2020 pandemic elections were a good reminder that “laboratories of democracy” isn’t just a slogan; federalism can be a force for innovation and creativity.

The other big lesson from 2020 isn’t so gratifying. It was more clear than ever that the big threat U.S. elections isn’t fraud. It’s from the faction of the Republican Party that is using the false threat of fraud to undermine democracy. That’s been true for a while, but it was more obvious than ever in 2020 when the heroes of the election were Republican election administrators, elected officials and judges who stood up to their own president’s efforts to undermine their integrity. The villains were Trump and the Republican elected officials and judges who were willing to go along with various kinds of voter suppression.

Whoever wins that internal party battle has a chance to determine the future of U.S. democracy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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