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Don’t Let Democracy Be a Victim of the Virus

An election campaign without an in-person component can diminish the voices of ordinary Americans and inflate the power of money. We must guard against that.

April 6, 2020
mask in crowd
David McNew/Getty

Amid the coronavirus crisis, democracy advocates are working overtime to ensure that the 2020 election can be conducted safely, freely, and fairly. The Brennan Center’s comprehensive plan is centered on expanding online voter registration, extending registration deadlines, making vote-by-mail available to all, and providing safe in-person voting options. You should read it in full — then call on your state and national representatives to make it a reality. 

But as foundational as voting is, a truly robust democracy also involves all of the in-person grassroots organizing activities that drive political campaigns —knocking doors, attending rallies and meetings, and gathering signatures, even down to standing at busy intersections or street corners holding signs. And all of those, of course, are now threatened by the social isolation guidelines that we all need to be following. That’s a problem. An election campaign without an in-person component is one that inevitably diminishes the voices of ordinary Americans and inflates the power of money — mostly in the form of the TV and online ads that will rush in to fill the void.

True, this could be worrying over nothing. Things could be more or less back to normal by the summer, allowing for a relatively smooth election process. But there are no guarantees — especially given the possibility that the virus recedes with the warmer weather, then resurges in the fall. So, it’s not too early to start thinking about how to ensure that, in this crucial election year, grassroots democracy isn’t yet another victim of the crisis.

Of course, one way to do that, which is already underway, is to start reimagining democratic engagement for the coronavirus era. People may not be able to mingle with candidates in person, but an online town hall offers the next best thing. If live conventions can’t take place this summer, the parties should be figuring out now how to ensure that virtual ones still leave room for input from the rank and file. In recent years, technology has raised some serious challenges for democracy, but it also now allows us to forge connections in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago, and that can help preserve some of the most important forms of political participation.

It’s also crucial to stay vigilant about things like freedom of speech and assembly, and the right to protest. For several years, there’s been a push from some state governments, and the Trump administration, to crack down on grassroots activism. Bills have been offered that boost penalties for blocking roads or highways, make it harder to hold drivers liable if they injure protesters who are blocking traffic, and allow protesters to be sued for the costs of policing their protests.

And the Trump administration in 2018 considered new rules that would have severely limited the right to demonstrate in Washington, including charging protest organizers a fee. Now, amid the coronavirus threat, it’s crucial we ensure that sensible public health measures that temporarily limit public gatherings aren’t cynically turned into permanent restrictions on fundamental democratic rights — as may currently be happening in a range of other countries, and not only authoritarian ones.

Then there’s the impact of the virus on the numerous campaigns to advance voter initiatives. Over the last decade, state and local ballot measures have emerged as perhaps the single most effective tactic for advancing progressive goals, on everything from democracy reform to criminal justice to healthcare access to a livable wage. They also have offered rare and inspiring examples of grassroots democracy in action — average Americans mobilizing to create change at a time when Washington feels less responsive to voters than ever. This year, robust campaigns were already underway to place on the ballot measures that would increase access to voter registration in Arizona, end gerrymandering in Oklahoma, raise the minimum wage in Ohio and Florida, establish paid leave in Colorado, and expand Medicaid in Missouri, among many others.

But thanks to the virus, that avenue for progress is threatened. When states began ordering lockdowns in mid-March, these campaigns were gearing up for, or in a few cases had already started, the major organizing challenge of gathering the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot over the spring and summer. (Florida, for instance, requires signatures from registered voters totaling 8 percent of all votes in the last presidential election, which comes to over 766,000 this year.) Now, they’re scrambling to adjust. Some campaigns are looking into the feasibility of gathering signatures by mail. Others are pressing state officials to extend the deadline, or lower the threshold, for signatures.

Chris Melody Fields, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which supports progressive ballot measures across the country, acknowledged that qualifying for the ballot this year just became a far heavier lift, though she stressed that the work would continue regardless.

“If some of these measures do not qualify this year, we have to look at other options,” she said. “But the important thing to remember is these issues remain critically important, and that opportunity will maybe shift to 2021 or 2022.”

Still, what happens this year matters too. When a person doesn’t exercise the muscles in their body, those muscles grow weaker. It’s the same here: if we have an election campaign that’s dominated even more than usual by TV and internet ads, and without a vibrant in-person component, we begin to gradually lose the capacity for popular democracy. In the end, the idea of ordinary people coming together to make change — by knocking doors for a candidate, by attending a protest or rally, by gathering signatures for a ballot measure — starts to seem futile. Even amid all the challenges we face right now, we shouldn’t let that happen.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.