It is time to secure our elections

It is time to secure our elections
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When it comes to federal elections, the lifeblood of our democracy, the United States has never skipped a beat. For over two centuries, during wars, depression, and pestilence, Americans have faithfully voted every two years for Congress and every four years for president. This explains why now, more than ever, we need to secure our electoral processes for November to ensure that our republic survives this latest pandemic.

First, let us look back to history. In the midst of the Civil War and World War Two, our deadliest and most disruptive conflicts, the United States conducted federal elections. They also went on during the depths of the Great Depression. Amidst masks and quarantines, the midterm election for Congress proceeded during the height of the deadly second wave of the Spanish flu, which killed more than 600,000 Americans and as many as 100 million people around the world. All these elections mattered.

In the 1932 federal election, Franklin Roosevelt defeated President Hoover in a landslide that ushered in a New Deal to address the Great Depression. In the 1918 midterm election for Congress, the House and Senate flipped from Democratic to Republican, profoundly affecting the settlement of World War One. The federal elections of 1864 and 1944 produced vice presidents who assumed the presidency within weeks of taking office.


None of these elections happened easily. Ballots were sent to battlefields during wartime. The homeless and the hungry still voted during the Great Depression, sometimes at makeshift polling stations. Both state and local officials eased bans on public gatherings so candidates could campaign and people could vote during the 1918 midterm election, which occurred despite both the Spanish flu and World War One raging on at the time.

Why did we do it? Because elections are fundamental to our very system defined by the Constitution. We have no kings or dictators to rule over us. We choose our leaders for defined terms. Without elections, this would no longer be our United States. We pledge allegiance to a republic and not to a leader or to a landscape. The challenge for our country now, as it was in those challenging periods, becomes conducting and safeguarding federal elections during a national crisis. We have done it before, and we must do it again. Just as back then, however, it takes essential advance planning.

Only an amendment to the Constitution that is passed by Congress and approved by the states can change the dates of when the terms of office end for members and the president. The only question our country now faces is how to ensure that states operate elections fairly. The Spanish flu severely depressed turnout in 1918. Mailed ballots cast safely from home can help. Some states grant voters the option to mail ballots in advance and then cancel them by voting in person on Election Day. This approach provides an important backstop for the voters unable to get to the polls.

Not every state has effective means to vote by mail. These state election laws need to change now while there is still time. The federal government should help with funding. Early voting will also reduce crowds on Election Day. Those crowds could create risks should the coronavirus persist until the fall or resurge in a second wave. Governors may be able to postpone primary elections, as some states have already done, but they may not alter the date for the federal election that is scheduled for November.

Acting alone, not even the president himself can legally delay that coming election. Only Congress has the power to do so, but this would not extend the terms of current members or the president. Either those terms end in January or our democracy itself will end with a dry cough and high fever.

Edward Larson is a law professor at Pepperdine University, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, and a member of Checks and Balances. His latest published book is “Franklin and Washington: The Founding Partnership.”