The coronavirus pandemic is putting much of the U.S. economy in check, but it is also wreaked havoc in the democratic process in election year.
The primaries have been delayed or interrupted, with closed polling stations and mail voting processes called into question.
Politicians are engaged in contentious struggles over the electoral process in state congresses and in the courts.
In November, voters plan to go to the polls to elect the next president, much of Congress, and thousands of state government candidates.
But the question of what Election Day will be like – if it is carried out as planned – is the main subject of debate.
Here are the answers to some key questions.
Could President Trump postpone the election?
So far, a total of 15 states have delayed their presidential primary elections. Most of them have been postponed at least until June.
That raises the pressing question of whether November’s presidential election will also be held later.
In Wisconsin, they distributed hand sanitizer before the primary vote. According to a law dating back to 1845, U.S. presidential elections are scheduled for tuesday morning, the first Monday in November every four years—That is, November 3, 2020.
It would take a congressional act – approved by majorities in the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives and in the Republican-controlled Senate to change that.
The prospect of a bipartisan legislative consensus that underwrites any delay in elections is highly unlikely.
The pandemic did not stop the holding of parliamentary elections in Sur.Es Korea any longer, even if voting day changes, the U.S. Constitution requires a presidential administration to last only four years.
In other words, Donald Trump’s first term will expire at noon on January 20, 2021, one way or another.
He could be another four years if he’s re-elected. He could be replaced by Democrat Joe Biden if he is defeated at the polls. But the clock has already started, and postponing the vote will not stop it.
What happens if the elections are postponed?
If the elections have not been held before the scheduled opening day, on January 20, the presidential line of succession takes action.
Second is Vice President Mike Pence, and since his term also ends that day, he is in the same situation as the president.
Next in line is House President, who is currently Democrat Nancy Pelosi, but her two-year term ends at the end of December.
The highest-ranking official eligible for the presidency on such an apocalyptic stage would be Republican Chuck Grassley, 86, of Iowa, the pro tempore president of the Senate.
That’s assuming Republicans still control the Senate after a third of their 100 seats have been vacated by the expiration of their own terms.
In general, all of this seems more typical of a novel of political suspense than of political reality.
But could the virus alter the election?
While an absolute change at the date of the presidential election is unlikely, that does not mean that the process is not at risk of a significant disruption.
According to Professor Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Trump, or state governments could use their emergency powers to drastically reduce in-person polling places.
In Wisconsin’s recently concluded primaries, for example, concerns about exposure to the virus, along with a shortage of volunteer election workers and election supplies, led to the closure of 175 of the 180 polling stations in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city.
If that were done in the light of political interests – perhaps by attacking an opponent’s electoral strengths – it could have an impact on the outcome of an election.
Could the states challenge the results?
Hasen also suggests another, even more extraordinary, if unlikely, context.
Legislative assemblies in each state, citing concerns about the virus, could regain power to determine which candidate wins their status in the general election.
There is no constitutional obligation for a state to support the presidential candidate who wins a plurality of its votes.
The 2020 presidential election is scheduled for November 3, if nothing changes… It’s all about the Electoral College, that archaic U.S. institution where every state has «voters» who vote for the president.
Under normal conditions, these voters (almost always) support anyone who wins the popular vote in their respective states.
However, it doesn’t necessarily have to work that way. In the 1800 elections, for example, several state legislatures told their constituents who to vote.
Hasen admits that if a state made such a «hard» move today, it would likely lead to mass demonstrations on the streets. But that would be if mass demonstrations were allowed under quarantines and decrees of social estrangement.
Will there be legal challenges?
Recent experience in the Wisconsin primary could serve as a warning for election disruption that could loom, and not just for long queues to vote in person at the limited ballot boxes, served by volunteers and national guard soldiers with protective equipment.
Before Primary Day, Democratic Governor Tony Evers and Republicans who control the state legislature engaged in risky legal battles — one of which was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court — over whether the governor had legal power to postpone the vote until June or extend the voting deadline by mail.
In March, Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine had a similar court battle before his successful move to delay his state’s primary.
A federal judge in Texas issued an order Wednesday that made the fear of contracting the coronavirus a valid reason to apply for absentee (or mail) voting in November.
The state’s requirements for mail-in voting had been some of the strictest in the nation.
What changes if the risk is reduced?
In a recent opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 66% of Americans said they would not feel comfortable going to a polling station during the current public health crisis.
Such concerns have increased pressure on states to expand the availability of mail tickets for all voters, thus minimizing the risk of viral exposure.
While each state provides for some form of remote voting, the requirements vary greatly.
«We have a very decentralized system,» Hasen says. «States have a lot of leeway in terms of how they do these things.»
Five states in the western United States, including Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, conduct their elections entirely by mail. Others, such as California, provide a postal ticket to anyone who requests it.
Why in some states don’t like mail voting?
On the other hand, 17 states require voters to provide a valid reason why they cannot vote in person to qualify for absentee voting.
These states have been asked to relax their requirements and make mail voting easier to obtain, even if some leaders resist.
Mike Parson, the Republican governor of Missouri, said Tuesday that expanding access to absentee voting was a «political problem» and suggested that the fear of contracting the virus is not, in itself, a reason to qualify for the vote in the mail.
Concerns about polling stations about the risk of contagion could put pressure on some states. Republicans in other states, such as North Carolina and Georgia, have expressed similar things.
Congress could intervene and require states to provide a minimum level of absentee voting or mail voting system, but given the current partisan stalemate in the U.S. Capitol, the chances of that happening are slim.
Do parties agree on how to protect elections?
Given the intense polarization of modern politics, it should come as no surprise that the changes in how elections are conducted during a pandemic have become an increasingly contentious debate.
Donald Trump himself has opposed the extended vote by mail, saying he is more susceptible to fraud.
He has also suggested that an increase in participation by reducing voting restrictions could harm Republican candidates.
But it’s not clear that conservatives are more hurt by mail voting, as Republicans tend to cast more votes in absentia than Democrats.
Is democracy in America at risk?
The coronavirus outbreak is affecting every aspect of American life.
While Trump and other politicians are pushing for life to return to apparent normality, there is no guarantee that everything will be okay in June – when many states have rescheduled their primaries – in August – party conventions – in October – presidential debates – or even on Election Day in November.
In times months to come would mark a coup in national political interest and growing activity until Election Day.
At this point, everything is in doubt, including, for some, the foundations of American democracy.
«Even before the virus arrived, I was pretty worried that people would accept the results of the 2020 election because we are very hyperpolarized and obstructed by misinformation,» says Hasen, author of several books on elections, the most recent Meltdown: dirty tricks, distrust, and the threat to American democracy («Electoral fusion: dirty tricks, mistrust and the threat to American democracy»).
«The virus adds much more to this concern.»