Op/Ed

Eric Davis: The virus will greatly impact politics

The COVID-19 pandemic will affect every political institution in the United States. While the magnitude and duration of these effects is still to be determined, normal political practices will not resume for at least several months, if not longer.
Legislatures at both the state and national level must consider remote voting. The Vermont House has authorized its leaders to establish such a system, and the Senate was scheduled to do the same this week. Developing a secure voting system is less of a challenge than continuing to hold in-person meetings of legislative bodies, many of whose members are over 60 or otherwise vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Congress is far behind the states in setting up remote voting. However, holding floor sessions in the Capitol Building and committee meetings in House and Senate office buildings, with seating areas and hallways jammed with lobbyists, staff and the press, contradicts all medical advice regarding physical distancing to control the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, the partisanship that has infected Congress in recent years will make it difficult for leaders to cooperate in developing alternatives to in-person voting on the floor and in committees.
The judicial branch is also affected by the need for physical distancing. Most states have postponed jury trials for the duration of stay-at-home orders. In many states, trial court proceedings have been moved online, with judges and lawyers communicating via video conferencing. Even some state and federal appellate courts have turned to oral arguments over Zoom, with the judges and attorneys remaining safe in their homes.
The United States Supreme Court has long resisted the introduction of broadcasting or other technology into its courtroom. While the high court has cancelled its March and April oral argument sessions in Washington, it has not announced its plans going forward, other than to say it will release opinions in all cases argued since last fall. 
If stay-at-home orders in Washington are relaxed by June, the justices may hear a few oral arguments at that time. Other cases could be postponed until the fall, or decided on the basis of written briefs without oral argument. Supreme Court oral arguments, which are fast-paced sessions where the justices routinely interrupt each other and the lawyers, are not well-suited to a technology such as Zoom.
The coronavirus will have substantial impacts on political parties and elections. Last week, the Democratic National Committee announced that its convention, scheduled for Milwaukee in mid-July, would be postponed until Aug. 17. The Republican Convention is scheduled for the following week in Charlotte, N.C. 
These conventions may very well not be held in their traditional form. Even if stay-at-home orders are relaxed, holding events in late summer with more than 25,000 people jammed into a basketball arena may not be prudent. 
If there are no conventions, broadcasters could sell the parties blocks of time to use for candidate acceptance speeches, films on the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and other forms of political communications. Committees of delegates working on party platforms and rules for future elections could deliberate remotely, with those sessions made widely available online.
One of the most important controversies, which is already beginning, is whether to make it easier for voters to cast ballots without having to go to a polling place. 
This will not be a challenge for some Western states such as Washington and California, where the great majority of votes are already cast by mail, with little, if any, evidence of fraud. Other states, such as Vermont, have early and absentee voting systems in place that already see close to 30 percent of votes cast before Election Day. These states could scale up their existing systems to universal vote-by-mail. 
The most intense controversies will be in states where election laws make it difficult to vote early, especially if Republican officeholders in those states fear expansion of mail-in voting will hurt the GOP at the polls.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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