Professor Emeritus Robert Schmuhl Answers Questions for NDWorks on COVID-19 and the 2020 Election

Author: Ragan Sernel

How coronavirus could affect US presidential election

by Carrie Stone, Internal Communications

With the first U.S. presidential debate scheduled to take place at Notre Dame in four months and Election Day in six, it’s safe to say the coronavirus crisis will collide with the 2020 presidential election cycle. The timing could impact voting outcomes and preferences and voter turnout in the general election on Nov. 3.

According to a recent study, most Americans expect the crisis to disrupt voting. A national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted April 7 to 12, finds two-thirds of Americans surveyed worry that it is very or somewhat likely that the coronavirus outbreak will significantly disrupt people’s ability to vote in the presidential election. It also reports half of the participants favor conducting all 2020 elections by mail.

Robert Schmuhlprofessor emeritus of American studies at Notre Dame and the inaugural Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair in American Studies and Journalism, shares his thoughts about voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Q. Having followed and written about every presidential election since 1976, how do you think the coronavirus pandemic will affect voter turnout, particularly in the general election?

A. America is in the middle of uncharted territory — medically, economically, psychologically and politically. If there would be a tragic return of the coronavirus in the fall, there’s no doubt of a significant electoral impact, especially with in-person voting. In 2020, we’ll all be considering entirely new variables in casting ballots. 

Q. What plans or systems could we put in place to ensure voters can feel physically safe enough to vote in November? 

A. To avoid long lines that would make social distancing difficult on Election Day, states would need to make early and absentee voting as well as voting by mail more available for the electorate. Citizens will be looking for options beyond going to their polling places on Nov. 3, and states need to provide them. 

Q. If we are required to vote by mail, how can the voting public feel confident that their votes are counted, all votes are counted accurately and that mail is a trustworthy way to vote? 

A. Five states currently conduct their elections by mail: Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii. Other states allow voting by mail in certain instances. Since 2000, Oregon has processed 100 million mail-in ballots and counted just a dozen cases of voter fraud. If there would be a push for the vote-by-mail option, planning would have to begin now to address logistical concerns that undoubtedly will arise because of the complexities involved in such a change.

Q. There’s a “flight to safety” theory in the psychology of voting (making decisions that appear safer, based on the known). Without voter surveys right now, do you have a sense from history what voters may determine a “safe” vote in the midst of a global crisis like this? 

A. At this point, Donald Trump’s performance as president during the pandemic will be uppermost in the minds of millions of voters. Citizens who judge the federal government’s response to be either slow or incompetent might think twice before voting in favor of a second Trump term. How people in the battleground states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2020) evaluate his leadership during the pandemic will be critical.