Last Wednesday the two of us circulated an open letter from U.S. political scientists, expressing concern about how the crisis surrounding the COVID pandemic could endanger the November election, and declaring that “We Must Urgently Work to Guarantee Free and Fair Democratic Elections in November” (posted at the bottom). The letter endorsed the excellent report produced by legal scholars at the Brennan Center for Justice, entitled “Responding to the Coronavirus Crisis.” Within 6 hours five hundred of our colleagues had signed. Within 48 hours over 950 had signed. Among the signatories were some of the most distinguished political scientists in the U.S., many past-presidents of the American Political Science Association (and the current president as well), and hundreds of the most dedicated teachers of American politics in U.S. higher education. This is a pretty striking response. As the political scientists who circulated the letter, and who are in a sense “participant observers,” we think it is important to explain this phenomenon — the rather phenomenal worry of so many people who study and teach about politics for a living.
In the spirit of reflexive inquiry, we offer the following hypotheses:
The current COVID pandemic is a global health crisis and an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions, and such crises always place stress on democracy.
Political scientists understand that such crises can place extraordinary strain on even the most functional and legitimate political systems. The crisis of the 1930s is perhaps the most useful example. The U.S. political system is not especially functional or legitimate at present. It has suffered from extreme Congressional gridlock and obstruction, an extremely decentralized and archaic electoral system that makes voting difficult for many and makes even proper vote tabulation problematic, high levels of polarization and political alienation and distrust, and high levels of inequality. When the virus’s unprecedented threat to public safety is factored into this, raising questions about whether people will be even to go to the polls, the danger to our democratic election is elevated even higher.
The current president of the U.S. is a man with no experience of political leadership or governing authority, who has waged a war on central principles and institutions of constitutional democracy.
This president has demonized his political opponents and the independent media; he has expressed admiration for dictators abroad and has even spoken on numerous occasions of his desire to remain in office beyond his term. A number of his former associates have raised a question raised publicly by many scholars: would he even step down if voted out of office? If there is one “law” of political science, it is that autocrats will exploit crises and “emergencies” to enhance their power in ways that threaten democracy. Putin does this. Erdogan does this. Many political scientists obviously fear that Trump might do this. And there is strong political science research to support this fear.
It is during moments of crisis that democracy is most endangered and is thus in most need of special vigilance and support.
There is much empirical research that demonstrates the ways that democratic civil society groups and opposition political parties and elites can often be mobilized to effectively resist political leaders with authoritarian tendencies.
At the same time, normative democratic theory has produced an exceptionally strong body of research on the reasons why democracy is so important in a time of crisis, highlighting these factors:
(a) the political competition and democratic contestation made possible by free and fair elections is an essential method of “social learning,” where the performance of the government in power can be “tested,” alternative proposals can be advanced, and the citizenry as a whole can register preferences about the best way forward. As political theorists from John Stuart Mill to John Dewey to Robert Dahl have shown, without such challenges, any government will become complacent. In this crisis, with this dysfunctional Trump administration, this is especially important.
(b) democratic elections are also essential to the ongoing legitimacy of the government and of the political system more generally. Especially in a time of crisis, it is essential for citizens to have a voice in political power, and to have a sense of a “stake” in the difficult decisions that the government will have to make. In a time of crisis, citizens are called upon to make sacrifices. Without real democratic engagement, such calls ring hollow, and citizens will not furnish crisis governments with the support that they need.
(c) in a crisis like the current one, questions of social equity and justice necessarily come to the fore. These questions must be addressed by any government seeking to avert crisis. And in order for them to be addressed, they need to be articulated, loudly, in public. Partisan competition and free elections are the best way that these questions can be articulated, debated, and resolved.
The current situation, in other words, is a “perfect storm” of crisis in which our democratic elections are in danger.
Political scientists disagree about many things, related to how we explain the world, which policies work best, and which ideological commitments are most compelling. Through our publication and broader communication, we debate these things in a serious way. Our journals provide forums for serious, critical, and non-ideological debate.
At the same time, the extraordinary speed with which almost a thousand political scientists came together this week to express concern about the November election demonstrates that there is one thing about which there is a very strong intellectual consensus among political scientists: democratic elections are always important, but never more so than in a crisis. And so, since the 1930s. It has never been more important than now to do everything we can, through Congressional action, state-level action, and public vigilance, to ensure that there will be a democratic election this coming November.
We Must Urgently Work to Guarantee Free and Fair Democratic Elections in November
We write as U.S. political scientists who are also parents, children, and concerned citizens, to urge that measures be taken right now to ensure that a free, fair, and smooth election can take place this coming November.
It is widely understood that elections are the heart of modern democracy. This is recognized in our Constitution, in federal law, and in important court decisions. It is recognized by both the Democratic and the Republican parties.
The COVID-19 pandemic that has befallen the U.S., along with the rest of the world, has caused a public health crisis that endangers the lives of millions of people and also threatens to cause enormous economic suffering. The virus is also causing a political crisis because it presents major challenges to public policy, but also because it endangers the democratic elections that are the heart of representative government and that regularly hold public officials accountable to the citizens that they claim to represent.
We do not know how long the current state of emergency will last. But we can see how it is currently disrupting primaries across the country, causing millions of citizens to be afraid to venture out of their homes, and even causing some states to postpone primary elections.
As we currently scramble to face the immediate crisis, we must remember that the November general elections are over eight months away. We have time to prepare, now, to ensure that these elections can take place, fairly, under any circumstances, and even if public health concerns prevent people from going to the polling booths to vote. A number of proposals to do this have been floated. We are particularly impressed by “How to Protect the 2020 Vote from the Coronavirus,” a report published this week by the Brennan Center for Justice. The report outlines a number of possible measures, including (1) polling place modification and preparation; (2) expanded early voting; (3) a universal vote-by-mail option; (4) voter registration modification and preparation, including expanded online registration; and (5) voter education and manipulation prevention.
We urge Congress to act, now, to deliberate and then enact legislation designed to address these concerns. And we urge all citizens to take this problem seriously, now, in time to make sure that our representatives do what is needed.
In the entire history of the United States, there has never been a missed election. Elections were held during the Civil War, during World War I, and during World War II. We must make sure that the election takes place this coming November, and that it is a free, fair, and democratic election in which all citizens have the chance to participate.
Jeffrey C. Isaac and William Kindred Winecoff both teach political science at Indiana University, Bloomington