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The Atlantic Politics Daily: This Is What Democracy (in a Pandemic) Looks Like

Managing the voting booth in the time of a pandemic. Plus: COVID-19 cases have been reported in all 50 states—here’s one essay on how to prepare for the worst.

It’s Tuesday, March 17. Voters in Arizona, Illinois, and Florida went to the polls today, despite public-health experts’ concerns.

In the rest of today’s newsletter: Managing the voting booth in the time of a pandemic. Plus: COVID-19 cases have been reported in all 50 states—here’s one writer, a former U.S. navy pilot, on how to prepare for the worst.



This is what democracy looks like: lines in public spaces, people in close quarters, fingers touching the same papers, touching the same screens, volunteers and paid workers—many elderly—interacting with strangers.

In other words, what’s good for democracy is bad for the severe people-to-people distancing required to keep the COVID-19 outbreak from overwhelming hospital systems.

Elaine Godfrey turned to health experts, state election officials, and poll workers themselves to understand what happens when an immovable election meets an unstoppable pandemic. What happens if poll workers don’t show up? Is it a health risk to vote in person? Why can’t states turn to mail-in ballots right away? The answers are, understandably, complicated.

These problems are likely to get worse as the primary season wears on. “We’re going to see a lot more disease over the next few weeks,” said Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “If leaders can consider other methods to vote, as well as postponing these primaries, that is definitely worth considering.” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, for example, recently introduced legislation that would allow all Americans to vote by mail ahead of the general election. And states voting later in the spring will have more flexibility to extend their absentee-voting deadlines and relax their early-voting rules.

Read the full story.


We are continuing our coverage of the coronavirus and have made some of our most essential stories free for everyone to read. Let us know if you have specific questions about the virus—or if you have a personal experience you’d like to share with us. You can reply directly to this newsletter, or send a note to our team here.

—Shan Wang

(A still from 10 Days Later, by Olmo Parenti)

What Italians now living in lockdown wished they knew:

When reports of the community spread of COVID-19 in Italy first began, Olmo Parenti, a filmmaker in Milan, said that he, like many other young Italians, didn’t take the outbreak seriously.

Days later, after many more deaths, and a health-care system on the brink, the entire country was entered a full lockdown. Some reports have placed America’s outbreak situation ten days behind Italy’s. So Parenti and his filmmaking collective put out a call for Italians around the country to describe their new reality, to their 10-days-ago selves.

Their responses make it into this chilling short documentary. Watch it here.



Social distancing has begun to change how people live, all around the world. Still, guidance from public-health experts and government officials to reduce physical contact between individuals seems to have fallen flat with the many Americans who crowded into bars and restaurants in major cities.

Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Nashville, Chicago, and Seattle all saw large gatherings. “Why might people have failed to apprehend the gravity of the outbreak and the importance of staying in?” our staff writer Joe Pinsker asks. Their psychology is useful to understand.

+ The worst may be yet to come. “Americans must prepare for the worst. The country is now likely to enter a mass-casualty scenario,” one former Navy pilot argues.

+ America has never faced a national crisis by leaving its states to respond by themselves. Now, “the actions of governors have been a model of quick thinking—a demonstration of the benefits of federalism when the White House is unprepared and disorganized,” argues Juliette Kayyem, a former department of homeland security official.

You can keep up with The Atlantic’s most essential coronavirus coverage here.


Today’s newsletter was written by Christian Paz, a Politics fellow. It was edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters.

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