The Coronavirus, or COVID-19 pandemic, is an unprecedented global infectious disease disaster. The initial outbreak was in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019, but it has since spread all over the world, with the US having the highest number of cases worldwide. In the US, COVID-19 highlights the realities of an eroding democracy in a crisis situation. While the virus infiltrates the US and all the countries of the world, COVID-19 has caused further democratic backsliding.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak has the potential to further derail American electoral integrity, which will lead to even more American democratic backsliding. Notably, elections all over the world are also being affected by the coronavirus with the delay of elections worldwide – this was most recently exemplified in the Wisconsin primary with the refusal from Wisconsin state republicans to push back the Wisconsin primary date.
According to Robert Dahl in his article Polyarchy, the ability to signify preferences is essential for a democracy; this includes the right to vote and free & fair elections (3). According to Dahl, varied levels of the population are able to participate in the democratic process of free and fair elections, he argues that the larger proportion of the population that has the right to vote will render a society more democratic (4). It is no secret in American democracy that our electoral policies exclude large numbers of our citizens such as formerly incarcerated people, voter ID laws, and other barriers to voting. America has recently been found to have the worst elections of any established democracy, according to the electoral integrity project in 2016 (Noack).
Elections all over the world are being delayed and 12 US states have delayed their primary elections (Bieber). As Florina Bieber argues in her article, Authoritarianism in the Time of Coronavirus “postponing elections for months might deprive governments of their legitimacy and allow autocrats to use the delay to strengthen their power and hold elections when it suits them.” This sentiment is relevant in highly contested swing states in the fight for the presidency, and could give certain politicians an unfair and undemocratic advantage over their opponents, which will leave elections less free and fair – a blow to democracy.
Recently, the coronavirus derailing electoral integrity was seen in Wisconsin, a contested swing state. In this election, the important primary race between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden is being decided as well as a state Supreme Court seat. On Monday, Republicans in the state legislature blocked the Democratic governor’s order to postpone the primary election. State democrats tried many different ways to change this process, including postponing the election and mail-in voting. This was thwarted by state Republicans who saw a political advantage to not provide voting accommodations (Herndon). This echoes Bieber’s argument that elections will be used for political advantage. As Nancy Pelosi was quoted, in her disapproval of the Supreme Court decision to uphold Wisconsin’s decision not to delay the primary: “this election is undermining our democracy .” This further echoes the sentiment that democracy is undermined through a legal framework because state politicians used legal mechanisms to postpone the election and further derail American democracy.
This is particularly problematic for the upcoming November Presidential election because there is no clear precedent for delaying an election in light of a pandemic, and alternative election measures have the potential to disenfranchise millions of voters due to lack of Internet access or the ability to register for the elections. This makes the decision between risking ones health and waiting in long lines to vote or not voting and therefore, not having a voice in American politics (Herndon). This is reason for concern, because in this case, American democracy is being undermined from within a legal framework, in the same way that authoritarian leaders like Adolf Hitler overthrew the established democracy Weimar, Germany (Dunn).
Coronavirus has the potential to further derail American free and fair elections, a pillar of democracy and render American democracy less stable. Overall, COVID-19 represents how a democracy in decline is ill equipped to handle a crisis and can further erode and derail American democracy.
Bieber, Florian. “Authoritarianism in the Time of the Coronavirus.” Foreign Policy, 30 Mar. 2020, foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/30/authoritarianism-coronavirus-lockdown-pandemic-populism/.
Herndon, Astead W., and Alexander Burns. “Voting in Wisconsin During a Pandemic: Lines, Masks and Plenty of Fear.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/us/politics/wisconsin-election-coronavirus.html.
Noack, Rick. “The U.S. Has ‘Worst Elections of Any Long-Established Democracy,’ Report Finds.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Mar. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/03/21/the-u-s-has-worst-elections-of-any-long-established-democracy-report-finds/.
Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
Dunn, John. “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. Juan J. Linz , Alfred Stepan.” Ethics, vol. 91, no. 4, 1981, pp. 685–687., doi:10.1086/292289
Ansari, Talal. “Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Upholds Legality of Lame-Duck Session That Limited Governor’s Rule.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 21 June 2019, www.wsj.com/articles/wisconsins-supreme-court-upholds-legality-of-lame-duck-session-that-limited-governors-rule-11561131859.