Have American voters faced a crisis like this before?
In November, Americans will head to the polls during a global pandemic.
But don’t worry! America has managed to hold elections during several different crises throughout its history. Let’s take a look at some ways America continued to get out the vote during periods of national crisis.
In 1918, the Spanish influenza pandemic was spreading and disrupting life across the United States. Keeping that year’s midterm elections safe and secure was a major concern for local officials.
Voters distanced themselves from each other and wore masks to the polls, all to ensure that their voice in the democratic process was heard.
The Spanish Influenza pandemic peaked in the United States in October and November of 1918. In the month of October alone, 195,000 Americans died from the virus. People were required to stay apart, quarantine, and local officials shut down public gatherings. As a result, the pandemic presented a huge challenge to the 1918 midterms and political campaigns, which needed to completely change how they campaigned.
Health officials at the time were accused of attempting to influence elections, especially when major campaign gatherings were shut down.
The 1918 elections were very important and getting Americans out to vote was imperative. Several significant issues were on the ballot that year, including women’s suffrage and prohibition (not to mention the fact that the country was still at war at the time).
Election and party officials did their best to turn out the vote despite the risks, and the election was carried out. The voices of Americans everywhere were heard.
In 1864, the Civil War was still raging and roiling the nation. That year also witnessed a significant presidential election.
Millions of Union soldiers were scattered across the country, and their votes could decide whether or not President Lincoln was reelected.
The election of 1864 was a pivotal one in the country’s history. President Lincoln faced the former commander of the Union Army General George B. McClellan. In early 1864, the Union Army suffered several setbacks and defeats. As a result, Lincoln’s popularity shrank and his reelection prospects grew dim. Lincoln himself thought he would lose reelection.
After Union victories during the battles of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Atlanta, however, Lincoln’s reelection prospects improved. There was one big problem though: how to get Union soldiers to vote.
States took different approaches to this issue. While Pennsylvania sent pollsters directly to Union Army camps to collect votes, other states allowed absentee voting for soldiers. There were also partisan attempts to curb soldiers’ support for Lincoln. For example, Democrats in Indiana required all soldiers to vote from home, rather than vote remotely.
In the end, during the 1864 election, up to 150,000 Union soldiers cast absentee ballots. Soldiers overwhelmingly backed their commander-in-chief and helped re-elect Lincoln. McClellan only won 3 states.
On September 11, 2001, New Yorkers went to the polls to vote in the primary election for several citywide positions.
After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the primary was rescheduled two weeks later and New Yorkers bravely carried out their civic duty.
In late October 2012, just a week before Election Day, Hurricane Sandy destroyed huge sections of New Jersey and New York, displacing millions of residents.
Despite this destruction and their displacement, voters were able to cast provisional ballots on Election Day. These ballots allowed them to vote in statewide elections regardless of where they were after the storm.
So remember, even though we’re dealing with another crisis right now, we’ve done this before and we can do it again!
Read this article from History.com on the election of 1864 and the challenges it posed.
Here is an article from CBS news outlining the challenges of voting during that crisis.
The National Museum of American History has a blog post giving an overview of the history of the soldier vote, as well as links to several other posts of American voting history.
Here is an article from the New York Times three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks detailing the rescheduled primary after it was shut down.
Emory Law wrote a comprehensive report detailing the various challenges, successes, and failures of the responses of American states to crises.