Coronavirus, the Census, and Election 2020: A Desperate Plea for “Plan B”

You are going to hear this message a lot from me in the months going forward: election officials and others need to have a “Plan B” to deal with intentional interference or natural disasters that can disrupt our democratic processes. The point is to come up with the backup plans now, before disaster strikes, when it is much harder to put a plan in place and much easier to see the political consequences of alternative courses of action. We will have much more buy-in across the country into clear contingency plans that have been put in place ex ante.

In the next nine months we will conduct a national census, a series of primary elections, two major party (and some minor party) political conventions to choose presidential nominations, and a general election in November amid an atmosphere of intense negative and tribal partisanship.

Should we be unfortunate enough to be dealing with a coronavirus pandemic which disrupts normal life in the United States during this period, we need to ask how is this going to affect these democratic processes? What if census takers cannot effectively go door to door to take census information from those who are not filling out the information online or in writing? What if that impacts particular states or areas of the country? When should votes be delayed? Would remote technology that might be used to conduct democratic processes in the event that a physical convention cannot happen be secure from hacking? Would there ever be reasonable grounds to delay an election, and who would have authority to do so?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. But I hope that people in authority are beginning to grapple with them.

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