The coronavirus pandemic this year has taken over 231,000 American lives but the United States is going through with the 59th quadrennial presidential election. But holding elections during a pandemic is not a new scenario for the US.
In the fall of 1918, the US was approaching a midterm election in the middle of one of the deadliest pandemics in history which eventually killed more than 675,000 US citizens. World War I was raging on at that time as well. Then President Woodrow Wilson and his fellow Democrats were trying to keep control of Congress during those tough times.
As voting via mail became the more popular option for the 2020 election, let's dive into the history to see how officials handled voting during the Spanish flu pandemic while balancing public health with democracy.
Candidates campaigned amid social distancing
Just like in the case of this year's pandemic, public gatherings were banned in 1918 as well. So the candidates in many cases were barred from holding speaking events. They used other forms of communication such as newspaper coverage or mailing citizens to come to vote.
Some candidates even accused public health officials of trying to influence the election by limiting turnout. It sounds like Trump in 2020, doesn't it?
First masked ballot in history
Some polling centers did not even open in the 1918 midterms because "there were not enough citizens who were well enough." Except for soldiers, voting by mail was not a widespread option for the majority of citizens at the time.
In late October in San Francisco, health officials released an order mandating people to wear face masks while in public or in a group of two or more people. On Election Day, both poll workers and voters were expected to wear masks, leading the San Francisco Chronicle to call it "the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America."
With the war as a backdrop, there was little discussion about delaying the election because Americans' spirit of national pride was running high with their soldiers fighting abroad, and voting was seen as a vital act of patriotism.
Low Turnout and a Republican victory
On 5 November, 1918, only 40 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. However, the poor turnout cannot be completely blamed on the flu. At the time, about 2 million men were fighting in the war, accounting for a high percentage of the US voting population as American women did not have the right to vote till 1920.
The aftermath of holding an election in the midst of an influenza pandemic was nothing but devastating. Influenza outbreaks and deaths, presumably due to the lifting of quarantine restrictions, had risen. Then an armistice paused the war six days after Election Day and the troops returned home. Tragically, the Armistice celebrations contributed to a new surge in cases of influenza in many cities across the country.
The 1918 midterms had a political fallout as well. As Republicans took over both the House and the Senate, it was only natural that the next US president was a Republican. An era of Republican dominance started with Warren G Harding's presidency in 1920.
Holding general elections amid a pandemic which can spread like wildfire is quite preposterous. But US seems to be a champion at that. Now at the eve of the election, we can only wait for the announcement of a new president and the dread that the public gatherings will bring forth.