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Epidemic Election


The 1918 midterm elections may give political candidates in 2020 a playbook for running for public office in the midst of an epidemic.

Election Day in America – Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 – is now 167 days away. No matter how the coronavirus curve changes between now and then, we know that executing our civic duty will not look this year at all like it has in years past.

And it won’t just be the act of voting that looks different; the entire dynamic of political campaigning has changed. For evidence of that claim, just take a look around you on Monday, Memorial Day: there will be no parades with candidates riding in the backseats of convertibles. No babies to kiss at community picnics, and if he makes an appearance at any rallies, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, former vice President Joe Biden, will be participating from his basement, where he has spent the last several months running for president virtually.

Even without big events and handshakes, democracy will go on, and there is playbook for political campaigns to look to as they rework their 2020 strategies. In the midst of the 1918 Spanish influenza, congressional candidates faced midterm elections. And, in addition to a global pandemic, there also was a world war going on. As The History Channel put it, President Woodrow Wilson and his fellow Democrats were trying desperately to keep control of Congress so that the president’s foreign policy agenda would stay intact.

The first wave of the flu, which eventually would kill approximately 675,000 Americans, hit the United States in the spring of 1918. A second wave hit in September—just two months before voters were supposed to go to the polls.

While officials in some jurisdictions discussed postponing the election, Jason Marisam, an academic who wrote a paper about the 1918 flu, said those voices were just murmurings. He told Euronews that he believes the lack of debate about delaying voting was due to “fervent civic pride engendered by” the United States’ involvement in World War I. Americans in 1918 were not going to declare defeat against any enemy, seen or unseen, known or unknown.

Like Joe Biden, because of bans on large gatherings “many candidates in the 1918 midterms could not campaign in the typical way.” In fact, “Barred in many cases from holding rallies or speaking events, [candidates in 1918] were forced to rely on less direct forms of communication, including seeking out newspaper coverage or sending campaign literature through the mail,” The History Channel explains. (Same with Biden: he is holding rallies on YouTube.)

A look back at primary source documents confirms that candidates had to find novel ways to keep in touch with voters. An October 16, 1918 story in the Chicago Tribune said, “Threatened with a complete cessation of political activity from two angles, Republican and Democratic managers-state and local-are prepared to decide definitely upon ways and means of conduction the Illinois senatorial, congressional, and local campaigns.” That was because “Pending official action by the state and city health authorities, all plans for opening the extensive speaking campaigns which had been arranged for state candidates were held in abeyance.”

In Illinois, the state actually banned campaigning. In Nebraska, meanwhile, politicians were allowed to campaign only for five days before the election.

While controlling politician engagement, local and state authorities also had the final say about the manner in which Americans voted. That meant, just like today, voting “looked very different” in 1918 “depending on what part of the country you were in.” On Election Day in California, for example, some voting sites didn’t even open in California. In Washington, D.C., schools, theaters, and polling places all were welcoming Americans by early November.

Almost everywhere, though, measures were taken to protect voters, though. According to The New York Times, many poll workers wore masks and tried to enforce social distancing. The Fresno Morning Republican reported that voters were advised “to enter the polling places where enclosed, one or two at a time, and to exercise all sanitary precautions,” including the donning of facemasks.

The flu impacted the reporting of the election as well. According to CBS, California’s Long Beach Press “was unable to report election results for the first time in its history and respectfully requested that readers not call to ask questions, since the telephone company's workforce was ‘weakened’ due to sickness.”

The Spanish flu was not the only time that U.S. voters went to polls under strife and uncertainty. In Slate, David H. Gans from the Constitutional Accountability Center reminds readers that there were questions about the wisdom of voting in 1864, when the country was in the middle of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln, who was up for reelection that year, argued that, while holding an election would be difficult, it also “was a necessity.”

Americans, and their leaders, are trying to find a way to proceed with democracy during the current pandemic as well. The two parties are working on contingency plans for their nominating conventions and candidates are now doing virtual fundraisers via Zoom and other online platforms.

While state and local officials already have altered voting dates and policies for the remaining primary elections, federal lawmakers also are looking at ways to ensure voters can make their voices heard in November. The fifth coronavirus spending bill passed by the Democratic U.S. House of Representatives on May 15 (a bill the GOP U.S. Senate is unlikely to consider) contains $3.6 billion in grants to state for “contingency planning, preparation, and election resilience.”

House and Senate lawmakers also have introduced S. 3440, the Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act, which, if enacted into law, would give states $500 million to implement systems that would allow voting by mail for any reason. More vaguely, the legislation would require “states to adopt contingency plans to prevent the disruption of federal elections from the COVID-19 virus.”

According to a USA Today and Suffolk University poll, 65 percent of Americans support vote-by-mail as an alternative to in-person voting while only 32 percent oppose the idea. The results vary greatly by party, however. Eighty-four percent of Democrats said they support voting by mail, but only 43 percent of Republicans said they do.

That trend holds at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and among the two parties. As CNBC has explained, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has endorsed the idea of voting by mail. President Donald Trump has said if he agreed to that “level of voting … you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Perhaps Democrats are trying to avoid the fate they endured in 1918.

Lower turnout during the 1918 election, which was due not only to the Spanish flu, but to the fact that millions of Americans were overseas during World War II, did indeed favor Republicans. According to The History Channel, “Patriotism aside, only around 40 percent of eligible U.S. voters cast their ballots on November 5, 1918, compared with 50 percent in the previous midterm.” The ten percentage point decline in participation equated to about three million votes, according to National Geographic. Democrats lost their majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, giving Republicans control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade. The loss “marked a major defeat for Wilson and his foreign policy agenda.”

Despite that setback, and perhaps ironically, the campaign for voting rights scored serious victories in 1918. As Ballotpedia explains, Oklahoma, Michigan, and South Dakota each passed a ballot initiative extending the right to vote to women.

A year later, with the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, women won the right to vote in federal elections.

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