This originally appeared in the Washington Post.
President Trump suggested Thursday that the 2020 elections be postponed. To be clear: Trump does not have the power to reschedule voting. Election dates are set by statute dating to 1845, and no U.S. presidential election has ever been postponed. Trump’s call for a delay is an outrageous break with American faith in democracy.
This year won’t be the first time Americans have voted amid disruption and crisis. U.S. democracy has functioned through wars and previous public health emergencies, as history shows.
In November 1864, the Civil War still raged, with hundreds of thousands dead or wounded. President Abraham Lincoln thought he was likely to lose the election to former general George McClellan, who proposed ending the war with slavery intact. Lincoln was so gloomy about his chances that he wrote a memo to his Cabinet, to be unsealed only after Election Day, that assumed he had lost. (He urged his officials “to save the Union between the election and the inauguration, as [his opponent] will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”) Last-minute military victories, especially the Army’s capture of Atlanta, swung support toward Lincoln. Voting was not easy, and circumstances led to innovation. The first widespread use of absentee ballots let Union soldiers vote, providing Lincoln’s margin of victory.
Two days after his reelection, Lincoln spoke to a crowd serenading him at the White House. There were “emergencies,” he noted. “But the election was a necessity,” he declared. “We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
That faith in democracy has been evident when Americans have voted during other national emergencies.
In 1918, the influenza pandemic that infected more than 1 in 4 Americans intersected with Election Day. A second wave emerged near Boston in September. The campaign was intense: World War I was still underway, some women were voting for the first time and “dry” candidates were making a hard push for prohibition.
Local and state authorities sought to maintain the integrity of the election while protecting public safety. Health officials in D.C. decided to reopen churches, schools and theaters shortly before the vote. In San Francisco, health officials mandated in October that people wear face masks while in public or in groups of two or more. All poll workers and voters were required to wear masks on Election Day, prompting the San Francisco Chronicle to call it “the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America.” Still “in most places the election was held with relatively few complications,” one study later concluded.
During World War II, many voters were overseas or away from home. In 1942, with strong support from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Congress passed the Soldier Voting Act, allowing service members to vote absentee in federal elections and helping states send them ballots. This bill was delayed by Southern opposition because it did not require soldiers, white or Black, to pay the notorious poll tax. In 1944, Congress amended the Soldier Voting Act well ahead of voting, allowing states to simplify the process. Eventually, this legislation helped at least 2.6 million soldiers cast ballots — enough to make a difference in that year’s contentious presidential election.
Decades later, fears were rampant about a terrorist attack in 2004, the first presidential election held after 9/11. A terrorist attack in Madrid that spring was seen as an effort to influence Spain’s elections. The House of Representatives made clear that U.S. voting would not be delayed. By a vote of 419 to 2, it declared that “the actions of terrorists will never cause the date of any Presidential election to be postponed,” and that “no single individual or agency should be given the authority to postpone the date of a Presidential election.” Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) said, “Elections are postponed in countries that have dictators by one individual. We do not operate that way.”
Today, Congress can help ensure safe, reliable elections by providing funds to states to support significantly expanded voting by mail, early voting and Election Day polling. Already, Congress allocated $400 million toward elections in the Cares Act, but much more is needed. The House-passed Heroes Act includes ample aid, and it’s urgent that the next stimulus include election support.
We also have to accept that this year, it is likely to take days, not hours, to tally the results.
Trump’s call for postponement, like something out of an authoritarian handbook, aims to undermine confidence in election results. Consider what a break that is with presidents past: Lincoln thought he would lose in 1864 yet carried on. Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats knew the 1918 vote could bring a setback, as midterms often do. (Indeed, Republicans won back the Congress.) In the 1940s, the opposition party gained seats in each election.
All of those votes were held. Americans understood that regular elections, set by statute and authorized by the Constitution, are at the heart of our democracy.