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UCLA faculty, students say pandemic may alter way people vote in 2020 and beyond

(Photo illustration by Daanish Bhatti/Assistant Photo editor and Emily Dembinski/Illustrations Director)

By Julia Shapero

Oct. 16, 2020 10:56 p.m.

The COVID-19 pandemic may impact both the 2020 election and permanently change the way elections are held in the United States, UCLA faculty and students said.

The federal response to the pandemic may be instrumental in determining the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, said Mark Peterson, a public policy, political science and law professor.

Peterson said the pandemic was a good opportunity for President Donald Trump to increase his public approval by organizing a centralized federal response where appropriate, such as through the mobilization of federal scientific resources, necessary personal protective equipment and ventilators.

However, he added the consensus among presidential scholars, public health officials and epidemiologists is that Trump fundamentally failed.

Chris Tausanovitch, an associate professor of political science, also said in an emailed statement that a particularly notable aspect of the national reaction to Trump’s handling of COVID-19 is how little his public approval has changed, while governors and other world leaders saw short-term increases to their approval ratings.

“Leaders who benefited from (COVID-19) treated it as a moment to bring people together against a common threat,” Tausanovitch said in the statement. “Trump instead chose to downplay the threat of the virus, and is still downplaying its impact.”

Peterson added that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden currently has the political advantage of being able to challenge Trump on his leadership during the pandemic.

“Because he was vice president for eight years and because he played an explicit role in addressing some of these similar kinds of potential epidemic or pandemic issues, he has more credibility as a challenger in making the case for how he would have handled things differently and what he would do differently if inaugurated in January,” Peterson said.

The pandemic may also change the way elections occur in the U.S.

Millions of Americans voted in primary elections rife with changes after the pandemic led to lockdowns in cities and states across the nation. Sixteen states and two territories postponed their primary elections or moved to mail-in voting because of COVID-19, according to The New York Times.

In-person polling stations effectively disappeared in many primary races across the country, Peterson said. The closure of polling places could pose public health dangers and discourage voting, he added.

“The more one reduces the number of places to poll, the longer the lines get, the more dangerous the lines are from a (COVID-19) perspective and the less likely people are going to vote,” Peterson said.

He said this reduction in polling places has occurred more often in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color. However, he said the disparity in access to polling stations has existed since before the pandemic.

“That’s why so many people have been focused on trying to develop a whole range of alternative ways for people to vote,” Peterson said. “So that whatever the impact is of (COVID-19) in November, … all those different options will make it possible for there to be less bias of who’s able to actually participate in voting.”

COVID-19 has also accelerated the expansion of mail-in voting, Peterson added. Before the pandemic, five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – already conducted all-mail elections, in which voting is done primarily by mail. California will now send every registered voter a vote-by-mail ballot for the general election, following an executive order signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in May.

Nic Riani, the state board chair of the California Public Interest Research Group Students and the campaign coordinator for the New Voters Project, said he thinks California’s decision to mail a ballot to every voter will encourage more people to vote by mail.

The vote-by-mail option will ensure that people who are particularly at risk for COVID-19 will not have to vote in person and will prevent lines at voting stations from becoming too long, said Riani, who is also a fourth-year public affairs student at UCLA. He added that he thinks it also makes voting more accessible.

This shift to mail-in voting could continue after the pandemic ends, Peterson said.

“(Mail-in voting) may prove to be a very sticky change in the sense that that may become a more common way in which people vote,” Peterson said.

However, if the election is poorly administered, people may cast a wide net of blame on mail-in voting, Tausanovitch said in the emailed statement.

Peterson added that Trump’s administration, the Trump campaign and the Republican establishment have suggested that there is a heightened risk of voter fraud associated with mail-in voting.

“All of this is an effort to frame the election and to use the pandemic and to use these alternative ways of voting as a means for trying to persuade people that there’s only one possible legitimate outcome, and that’s the reelection of Donald Trump,” he said. “That’s dangerous. It’s profoundly dangerous. And unfortunately, that’s part of what (COVID-19) has contributed to this particular process.”

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Julia Shapero | Assistant News editor
Shapero is a senior staff News reporter. She was previously an assistant News editor in the National News & Higher Education beat. Shapero is a fourth-year political science student who enjoys covering national and statewide news.
Shapero is a senior staff News reporter. She was previously an assistant News editor in the National News & Higher Education beat. Shapero is a fourth-year political science student who enjoys covering national and statewide news.
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