COVID-19 will screw up the 2020 Election

It’s becoming increasingly likely that the US will see widespread cases of COVID-19, overwhelmed hospitals, and many deaths. There are many ways that the new coronavirus could affect the 2020 U.S. elections — none of them good.

No candidate will want to campaign wearing personal protective equipment.

Here are some of the bad things that could happen to our national elections over the next 10 months:

Already, some states that voted on March 3 took extra precautions to prevent the spread of the virus at polling places. Washington State, currently home to the worst known outbreak, votes entirely by mail — luckily for them. Oregon and Hawaii are the only two states that will vote by mail in the remaining primaries. The other states almost certainly do not have the capacity for everyone to vote absentee. Turnout is likely to be depressed as the number of confirmed cases and deaths rises.

The Democratic National Convention starting July 13, 2020 is projected to attract 50,000 people. I see no way that this event will take place as scheduled. Gathering thousands in a convention center, from all parts of the country, is a recipe for viral spread. Following Super Tuesday, and the withdrawal of all but two candidates (sorry, Tulsi), there is a good chance that a candidate will have a majority of delegates before the start of the convention — as has happened every year since 1956. In that case the DNC could arrange a vote-by-mail system to complete the formality of nominating a candidate.

During the last week of February, Trump, Pence, and other senior government officials attended the Conservative Political Action Conference where, it is now known, at least one attendee was infected with the new coronavirus. During the 1918 Flu Epidemic, President Wilson was among those infected.

Donald Trump (73), Joe Biden (77), and Bernie Sanders (78) are all at high risk of complications should they develop COVID-19. Sanders apparently has cardiovascular disease, and Trump seems to be a prime candidate for diabetes and heart disease. Given the likely spread of the virus to a substantial portion of the U.S. population within a few months, it seems hard to imagine how the candidates could continue to campaign without becoming infected. Campaigning traditionally involves traveling around the country and shaking hands — no candidate will do this wearing personal protective equipment. Campaigning by video feed from a sealed location will not look so great either. Trump said on March 7 that he will not stop holding rallies.

The Democratic Party rules say that if a nominee dies or is disabled, the DNC fills the vacancy in consultation with the Democratic governors and members of Congress. Would the Democrats choose the runner-up in the primary campaign? If they did not, would the choice seem illegitimate? Certainly there would be controversy that could be exploited by bad actors. According to Republican Party rules, a vacancy in the office of Republican candidate for President or Vice-President would be filled by the 41-member Executive Committee of the Republican National Committee or by a meeting of the RNC.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Trump, facing declining popularity amidst a national crisis that he is unable to contain, decides to postpone the elections due to the national emergency. A Congressional Research Service report in the wake of 9/11 concluded that “The Executive Branch does not appear to currently have the authority to establish or postpone the dates of elections at either the federal or state level in the event of an emergency situation.” There is no reason to believe that a lack of authority would stop Trump from trying if he felt it was in his own interest.

Even with measures to sanitize poling places, it is likely that some voters will hesitate to go to the polls due to the threat of COVID-19. If states plan ahead, there is time to switch to voting by mail.

Even if Trump is “officially” declared the loser by the AP on election night, he would still exercise all the powers of the presidency for another 78 days. Trump has already resorted to both extraordinary lawful means (a $1 billion fundraising goal) and unlawful means (extorting a foreign government) to insure his re-election. We have to consider the possibility that he would attempt to use the lame-duck period to delay or prevent the peaceful transfer of power.

The November election only elects Presidential Electors, who will vote this year on December 14. If the candidate who is apparently the winner dies before the Electors vote, the parties can replace him under the same party rules that would apply if a candidate dies before the election. In order to effectuate this change the parties will have to instruct their Electors to vote for a person other than the one who was selected by the voters, contrary to statutes in Michigan, Vermont, and Wyoming. The Supreme Court is due to decide by June 2020 if states may prevent Electors from selecting a candidate of their choice.

On December 14, the electors will cast votes, seal them, and send them to Congress, which counts them on January 6. There is no clear legal guidance on how Congress should count votes for a deceased candidate. If Congress declares the deceased candidate the winner, the late candidate would become President Elect under the 20th Amendment, which provides that the Vice President Elect becomes President on January 21 in the case of the death of the President Elect. If Congress will not count votes for a dead person, no candidate will have a “majority of the whole number of Electors appointed,” in which case the House voting by state selects the president from the top three in electoral votes — which, if the dead candidate is ineligible, would be only one person.

The 20th Amendment states that the Vice President Elect will become President in this scenario. If the President Elect is alive but “fails to qualify”, the Vice President Elect becomes acting president until there is a qualified president. If neither the President Elect or Vice President Elect “qualify” to be president, the Presidential Succession Act applies.

Predictions

Even though forecasting is difficult — especially involving the future — I offer the following:

It is likely that states will shift to vote-by-mail in advance of the November election. Three states already mandate mail voting, so it is not a new concept. Electronic voting is not secure.

This year the candidates will be nominated without delegates actually meeting. This will raise the question of whether these week-long gatherings are necessary. Given the heightened attention to the numerous flaws in the primary election process, there is an opportunity for significant reform.

The Democrats would be wise to choose a younger candidate for the person second in line to the president. Cory Booker (age 50) would be an excellent choice. Mike Pence is 60. The parties might want to sequester these backup choices, which could be hard given their current official duties.

This is an easy prediction to make.

In short, after 2020 we may be nostalgic for the happy election of 2016. On the bright side, COVID-19 will likely buy us a couple of years in the fight against massive climate disruption.

data scientist, democracy advocate, transportation analyst

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