Kuntzman: The death of democracy

Caroline Kuntzman, Staff Columnist

The forced closure of schools, businesses and offices all across the country is significantly affecting the daily lives of most Americans. Over three-fourths of U.S. states have issued stay-at-home orders, impacting how many Americans work, attend school and go about their lives, in general. Given the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus, these measures are necessary and important to protect the public; however, some, such as the way the government functions, may be less beneficial, and even, detrimental to American democracy. 

It started in Ohio, when the presidential primary elections were postponed. Ohio’s primary was not the first to be pushed back—Louisiana, Georgia and Puerto Rico had all already decided to delay theirs due to concerns about the coronavirus. However, the means used to postpone the election caused an issue. State officials submitted a request to Richard A. Frye, the judge for the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, to approve delaying the primary. When Frye denied this request, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, announced that the state’s health department was going to close the building’s polling locations on the grounds of a public health crisis.

The problem with delaying the primary is less about the end result as it is with the means that were used to push it back. While Ohio’s Supreme Court did decide to back the executive branch’s decision to delay the primary, this doesn’t change the fact that the health department, an executive agency, undermined a judge’s decision not to cancel the primary by forcing polling stations to close. 

The decision to delay the primary was likely made with good intent and is very consistent with Ohio’s other policies to protect the public from COVID-19, but it sets a dangerous precedent. The relationship between the different branches of government could be used in the future to destroy the system of checks and balances that has helped preserve democracy in the U.S. since its founding. By using an executive agency to render a judge’s decision powerless, DeWine’s executive branch used power it was not designed to have. The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision to back the health department’s actions sets a precedent of allowing the executive branch to undermine the judiciary in times of emergency, which could be abused in the future.

The primary elections may not be the only ones in danger of being impacted. The president cannot legally delay the election by executive order, as this would require legislation from Congress, the president’s signature and the approval of the Supreme Court. These checks and balances should make it difficult for the national elections to be pushed back through the same means that Ohio’s primary was, but the federal government could mandate different voting means or the states could choose to shift towards voting methods that don’t require having crowds gather, such as mail-in voting. 

Switching over to mail-in voting only in November could be beneficial for a number of reasons. In addition to preventing the risk of having crowds gather if COVID-19 is still spreading come fall, states could save money by not having to set up polling stations or pay poll workers. Past cases have found that increasing access to mail-in voting can help increase voter participation among minorities, younger voters and older voters.

As good as these benefits are, there are several valid concerns about mail-in ballots. One of these is the potential for increased voter fraud. Ballots could be stolen and cast in another’s name far more easily if they were sent to homes instead of cast in monitored polling stations. Additionally, there have been cases of post offices not delivering mail-in votes until after the election was called, which could increase the risk of votes not being properly counted. 

What is perhaps the biggest concern about only conducting mail-in voting would be the potential disenfranchisement of Native Americans. Reservations often aren’t set up to have mail delivered directly to homes. Instead, residents may have to travel miles to collect their mail. For members of Native American communities, who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, this may be particularly difficult to do during the current outbreak. 

In the midst of this current pandemic, there is no clear, easy solution as to how we should continue running democratic processes. Whether elections are delayed, switched over to mail-in only or held in person, there is the potential for either jeopardizing public health or reducing voter participation. What is clear is that COVID-19 is affecting democracy. Whether or not these changes will have a permanent impact on America’s future is a different story, but the actions taken today will set precedents for how future emergencies should be handled. Policy makers need to proceed with care and not undermine systems put in place to balance government power and protect voting rights. This is extremely critical not just to the people of today, but to prevent the country from starting down a path that leads to the death of American democracy.