Culture, News, Politics

Choosing the President During a Pandemic

By Eliza Fisher ‘23, Assistant Features Editor

With COVID-19 in full force, we are often occupied with news about the virus and thoughts of reopening the economy. It sometimes slips our minds that the United States is scheduled to hold a presidential election amidst a pandemic.

President Donald Trump made clear that there will be an election on November 3, even if the logistics are different than usual. Though Congress is the only branch that has the ability to make this decision, it seems very likely that the election will occur in November. CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley commented, “If we can vote in the middle of the Civil War and if Franklin D. Roosevelt can run for an unprecedented fourth term in the middle of World War II, then we can figure out how to make 2020 a free and fair election.” Heschel senior Michael Schwab added, “The Constitution is pretty clear when it says that the president’s term lasts until January 20th. In other words, the election is going to take place during the pandemic, because we cannot push that constitutional date.”

Apprehensive about the difficulty of voting during a pandemic, Congress recently approved a $400 million federal grant to help adapt the 2020 election in light of the current circumstances, but the details of the alterations remain unclear. 

One potential difference is increased mail-in ballots. Though five U.S. states already hold all elections in this way, national mail-voting will bring some new challenges to the election. For example, absentee ballots are rejected at a higher rate than those filled out at polling stations. This is because polling places have staff to help voters with questions or problems, while votes cast via mail sometimes have errors and then get discarded. Therefore, the elderly and those who have underlying conditions or are immuno-compromised may be at a disadvantage because they are not able to go to a public polling place like others may, for it puts them at risk. In addition, in Georgia there is limited access to polling places because of COVID-19, causing long lines and dysfunctional voting machines. This is worrying voters who plan on voting through methods other than mail-in ballot. Because of concerns with mail-in ballots, President Trump is hesitant to allow states to use these ballots as their method for voting this year. Many see Trump’s position as a way to skew the outcome of the election by suppressing mail-in ballots. 

Some also worry that changes in the voting system will obstruct the honesty and safety of the election. Some states might have in-person voting while others won’t, and thus states that have reopened at a quicker pace than others might have a higher percentage of votes counted than states with no polling stations open.

So far, there have been complications with voting in primaries. New York officials canceled the Democratic presidential primaries, which were scheduled for June 23. This decision sparked controversy from a number of political leaders, but officials explained that it was the safest decision in terms of preventing the spread of coronavirus. Since New York cancelled its primary, sixteen other states have followed suit and either postponed theirs or encouraged voters to submit ballots via mail.

In addition to the changes in the voting process, campaigning will look dramatically different this year. Because social distancing remains a priority, it is nearly impossible to imagine rallies and gatherings in the near future. Despite this fact, President Trump threatened to relocate the Republican National Convention that is set to take place in North Carolina if the state places restrictions on the crowd size. However, with these social distancing guidelines, candidates are able to reach Americans through technology. Presumptive Democractic nominee Joe Biden hosts virtual town halls, roundtables, and happy hours. The Trump administration has also been holding virtual events, including an online, streamed, nightly show that gets at least one million views per program, according to Trump’s team.

The role that President Trump plays in the pandemic may influence the way people vote. Freshman Charlie Lebwohl remarked, “I think it all hinges on how the outbreak plays out. If things get bad enough, maybe Trump’s core supporters will turn on him.” Similarly, Schwab thinks that since the outbreak of COVID-19 was an unpredictable event that “occurred during an election year, so a lot of negativity will be at the forefront of the minds of many Americans. It happens to Democrats and Republicans alike— c’est la vie.”

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