The United States is facing a double-barreled health and economic crisis unlike anything it has seen since a brutal flu pandemic a century ago when the world was a different, less connected place. Mass quarantines have led to mass layoffs. Numerous businesses and entire industries are flailing. Hard-hit states are desperately working with the federal government to build new hospitals as more and more of the 100,000-plus Americans known to have coronavirus go on to develop the disease it causes — COVID-19, a life-threatening respiratory condition.
The stresses and strains on all aspects of society are intense and only likely to build in coming weeks.
But this emergency, while dire, cannot be allowed to interfere with the basics of U.S. democracy. They must be shored up even as so much else is upended.
For starters, the 12 states that have postponed presidential primaries because of the coronavirus threat must not cancel those primaries. To lessen public health risks, all states should make it easy to vote by mail and establish drive-through ballot drop-off sites for use in the final weeks before rescheduled primaries. This will be a test run for the Nov. 3 general election, which must go on as scheduled. There is time to implement changes on a large scale so voters don’t line up so close to one another.
A second crucial step is that the Democratic presidential primary campaign resume — safely, without rallies. It is unfortunate that Democratic front-runner Joe Biden recently said, “We’ve had enough debates,” and may skip the planned but not yet scheduled 12th and final debate run by the Democratic National Committee. Biden’s lead over the other remaining Democratic candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is massive but not mathematically insurmountable. Biden refusing to participate in a safe, televised debate with no audience and candidates in separate studios would set a bad precedent. It would also be seen as an insult to millions of Sanders’ supporters, whose backing is critical to Democratic hopes to unseat Trump. If he’s the nominee, Biden can’t afford to alienate a large number of Sanders supporters since some may not vote for him anyway. For the former vice president, the right thing to do is also the strategic thing to do.
A third crucial step is canceling the Democratic National Convention scheduled for Milwaukee in July and the Republican National Convention scheduled for Charlotte, N.C., in August. Online conventions should be held instead. Holding such large gatherings seems likely to be a substantial public health risk for many months to come.
A fourth crucial step is allowing members of Congress to vote remotely. During a public health crisis like this, having every federal lawmaker congregate in a handful of buildings in one city makes no sense — especially because nearly 200 senators and representatives are older than 65, a particularly vulnerable group. Not only would remote voting keep lawmakers safe, it would also ensure that Congress — and, thus, American democracy — could function when it absolutely had to in a worst-case scenario.
None of the federal and state lawmakers or major party leaders who must make these proposals happen should consider them controversial or partisan. Instead, they are essential for American democracy.