We need vibrant democratic politics during this pandemic

Even in the middle of a pandemic, we can’t stop, won’t stop, politics. 

Our fundamental democratic mechanism, voting, must continue. We are hurtling toward Nov. 3, 2020, the date of the general election designated in federal law. The Constitution itself sets the date and time for when the president’s and vice-presidents terms end — January 20 at noon. And the document also cuts off the terms of senators and House members a few weeks before. 

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some changes that should be adopted. In response to our public health crisis, many states are rescheduling primaries or changing how they proceed. 

Maine held its presidential primary on March 3, but more primaries remain. Gov. Janet Mills moved those to July 14 and extended the deadline for Clean Election qualifying contributions to May 19. Mills was right to make these changes.

And, although many Mainers will choose to vote with absentee ballots, Mills was correct to retain in-person voting, while calling on “the Secretary of State’s Office to work with municipalities to ensure that in-person voting can be done in as safe a way as possible.” Research shows that pure vote by mail systems under-represent voters who move relatively frequently. Under current law, Maine also needs polls open so people can register to vote on Election Day. 

People line up to vote at Riverside High School during the primary in Milwaukee on April 7. Voters lined up to cast ballots in the primary election across Wisconsin, despite a stay-at-home order in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

Because COVID-19 may be a problem this fall, Congress should allocate funds to states for vote by mail, sending ballots to voters and allowing returns postage-free. An early start would avoid a mess like Wisconsin’s, when many people didn’t receive absentee ballots in time and the U.S. Supreme Court added a requirement to have them postmarked by election day.

Unfortunately President Donald Trump has threatened to veto a pandemic relief bill if it provided funds for the U.S. Postal Service. But Congress should do so anyway. Even without the probable need to ramp up absentee voting, the post office delivers mail even in the most rural areas and employs 650,000 people; it’s so important it’s named in the Constitution and is the public’s favorite federal agency

Protecting democracy also means making sure there is transparency in how the massive relief spending is spent. Congress tried to do that by including stringent oversight measures in legislation but Trump removed these by executive order, fired the original inspector general for pandemic relief bills and went after other inspectors general. Given the massive size of public funds to be dispersed — $2 trillion — and the potential for favoritism and corruption, Congress must restore independent controls.

This November Maine has a very important race, the campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Susan Collins.

Maine voters will consider more than the pandemic when they cast their votes, but surely that will be important. 

With the primary now put off until July, there is no Democratic nominee yet. Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon looks like the frontrunner and she is connecting with voters through virtual town halls. Gideon led the Maine Legislature to pass legislation that called on the federal government to make it easier to get health coverage and led the passage of emergency public health spending and help for the unemployed and others.  

Sen. Susan Collins has focused on loans to small businesses. At the same time, Collins has defended Trump’s handling of the pandemic, saying “the president did a lot that was right in the beginning.” Collins’ remark will likely be remembered the same way as her claim that Trump “learned a pretty big lesson” after the impeachment was, with many examples that refute what she said. 

Contrary to Collins’ comments, Trump didn’t halt all travel from China. Trump did little in the 70 days from when he was warned in the Jan. 3 Presidential Daily Brief until he acknowledged COVID-19’s threat and Trump dismissed warnings from within his administration. 

Politics is the way we make decisions together about the direction of our communities. As we face the pandemic and economic distress, we need vibrant, active civic involvement now more than ever.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.