Annie Lowrey: This is not a recession. It’s an ice age.
This leads to a political imperative, which, if not met, could strain and even rupture American democracy. If the COVID-19 contagion persists through or resurges in the fall, the possibilities for a free and fair election on November 3 could be jeopardized. This does not need to happen. The U.S. has half a year to avoid a repeat of the horrible spectacle of the Wisconsin primary last week, when voters, unable to vote by mail, were forced to risk infection by waiting in lines, without proper distancing, to vote at crowded polling stations that had been reduced in number by more than 90 percent. People should be excused from the obligation of going out on Election Day to a polling place where they may face long lines, shared surfaces on which the virus may diffuse, and inadequate numbers of poll workers. Every American who wants to do so should be able to freely vote by mail, or to receive in the mail a ballot that they can drop off at a polling or counting center. If social distancing is the immediate public-health directive for limiting the spread of the virus, distant voting is the clear electoral parallel. Many states require financial and technical assistance (totaling up to $3 billion nationally) to make this option available to all voters, and Congress must appropriate the funds soon.
This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Older voters, non-urban voters, and red-state voters are no less anxious to be able to cast a vote that does not put their health at risk. In fact, because of the nature of the virus, older voters are more at risk if they go to the polls. Moreover, a solidly Republican state, Utah, will join Hawaii this year to become the fifth state in the country to vote entirely by mail. The switch caps a years-long process in which voter turnout dramatically increased along with voter satisfaction as Utah counties, one by one, adopted voting by mail.
Nothing the U.S. could do to shore up the global fate of democracy would have a greater impact than the effective management of its own epidemic, economic crisis, and election. But the country must not allow its domestic trials to blind it to the need for international action and vigilance in the face of authoritarian ambition and disinformation.
The best hope for controlling and reversing the pandemic lies in deep, multifaceted cooperation among countries, sharing information, supplies, and research that can lead to medical treatments and a vaccine for the virus. That is why, even with all its flaws, America—as much as the rest of the world—needs an effective World Health Organization. President Trump’s efforts to suspend U.S. payments to the organization is shortsighted and self-defeating. Additionally, independent media and civil-society organizations around the globe need the financial support of Western democracies to ensure the free flow of information and the self-organization of society, to counter both the pandemic and the tendency of rulers to use the pandemic to aggrandize their power and eclipse civil liberties.