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  • Matthew Green

Is the Coronavirus a Threat to American Democracy?

Updated: May 6, 2020

“Democracy on the ropes.” “The coronavirus’s threat to democracy itself.” “Can democracy survive the coronavirus?” These and other headlines have raised the specter of decaying democratic governance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. How, after all, can a democracy withstand a viral contagion that keeps people from polling places, halts legislative business, and encourages authoritarian practices?

The virus has certainly placed unprecedented strains on social and economic life around the world, and some democratically-elected governments have imposed martial law, centralized power, and limited civil rights in response. But in the United States at least, there is good evidence that some of the alleged threats to democracy are less severe than many have claimed.

Threats to the Electoral Process

Perhaps the most commonly cited danger to American democracy is a breakdown in the electoral system. Millions of voters could stay home during the November elections because they are ill, or to protect their own health. Those who do want to vote could be turned away from polling places that lack enough workers to open.

Numerous social scientists and experts in election administration have expressed this well-founded concern, some years before the current epidemic. The possibility is not purely hypothetical. The 1918 influenza pandemic has been blamed for lower-than-expected turnout in that year’s midterm elections. More recently, in an April special election in Wisconsin, thousands were forced to stand in lengthy queues, and dozens of poll workers and voters subsequently tested positive for the virus.

There are reasons for optimism, however. While many states lack enough funding to shift to purely mail-only elections—the most obvious solution—five already conduct their elections entirely by mail, another 21 allow the practice for local races, and 33 permit excuse-free absentee voting.

Furthermore, several states have conducted vote-by-mail elections successfully this year. The use of absentee balloting in the Wisconsin special election increased drastically and overall turnout was generally on par with past elections in the state. Maryland and Kansas have also held elections without major issues.

As Charles Stewart has noted, individual elections like the one in Wisconsin are not proof positive that such a transition can happen easily by November, and certainly not equally well across the country. But they are hopeful indicators. Indeed, the virus has given states a unique opportunity to embrace a method of voting that, according to a new study, may increase turnout across the board.

Another, less plausible virus-related threat to American elections is that incumbent political leaders will use the pandemic as an excuse to game their timing and conduct, thereby improving their chances of reelection. Some, including President Donald Trump’s presumptive Democratic challenger Joe Biden, have gone so far as to warn that the November presidential will be cancelled altogether.

This is extremely unlikely. The president lacks the constitutional and legal authority to delay or cancel federal elections. Scenarios in which the president circumvents constitutional limits—persuading states to appoint members of the Electoral College, imposing quarantines on Election Day, limiting postal service operations to hinder voting by mail—are highly improbable.

States do have authority over the conduct and timing of primary elections and elections for state-level offices, and the country has a long history of states altering election rules for partisan gain. But political parties can incur substantial electoral and reputational costs by doing so. Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature were widely panned for refusing to delay the state’s special election, which their party’s candidate for the Supreme Court lost anyway. Wanting to avoid the same fiasco, the GOP-led legislature in Louisiana subsequently agreed to expand absentee ballot access in their state, albeit not as broadly as reformers wanted.

Threats to Legislatures

Another common argument is that the pandemic cripples the ability of American legislatures to operate. Social distancing precludes representatives from gathering collectively, and state and federal lawmakers tend to be older males, a population that is at higher risk of death from the virus. A handful of members of Congress and legislative staff have tested positive for the coronavirus, and several state lawmakers were also sickened or even died.

There is evidence that epidemics can significantly curtail the functioning of legislatures. During the 1918 flu pandemic, the U.S. Congress struggled to assemble a quorum to do business, and some party leaders were stricken with illness. This year, fears of spreading the coronavirus led over twenty state legislatures to postpone meeting, or recess or adjourn early, while Congress suspended nearly all of its activities. “It’s harder for us to exercise oversight when we’re all at home in our war rooms,” one congressman lamented.

Yet American legislatures have proved surprisingly nimble in adopting procedural changes, new technologies, and innovative practices to overcome social distancing and fulfill their primary responsibilities. The Virginia House convened outdoors, for example, and the Ohio legislature limited the number of members who could be in their chambers. Utah and a dozen other states implemented new rules to allow lawmakers to meet and vote remotely.

Even the U.S. Congress, constrained by the Constitution’s quorum requirement and traditionally hesitant to adopt new technology, has begun following the lead of state chambers. When the House met last month, lawmakers wore masks and limits were set on how many people could come to the floor at once. The Senate is reconvening this week with its own safeguards.

Threats to Checks and Balances

A third alleged threat to American democracy is that the balance of power will durably shift towards the executive branch. Times of crisis play into the hands of the executives who, as Alexander Hamilton observed in Federalist Paper 70, have the requisite “energy” to protect liberty and property against threats. The American presidency has already accrued substantial influence over time, and a precipitating crisis could accelerate that trend, putting the country’s system of checks and balances at risk.

President Trump has long demonstrated a fondness for autocracy, unilateral action, and the belief that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president.” As the virus spread throughout the country, his attorney general proposed that the Department of Justice be permitted to confine individuals indefinitely, while Trump brashly declared that only he could reopen businesses and schools. Meanwhile, the legislatures of several states, including Iowa, Oklahoma, and New York, have delegated extraordinary power to their governors.

But as Matt Glassman and Jonathan Bernstein have noted, one of the most striking features of the Trump presidency is its political weakness. The president frequently fails to compel Congress, governors, and even executive branch staff to follow his directives. If Trump is a dictator, he is an extraordinarily feeble one.

That feebleness has continued during the pandemic. Congress, not the White House, has been the primary driver of legislative action, and many of the details of bills have been worked out without much input from the president. Trump quickly backed away from the claim that he alone could reopen the country, and he has deferred to states to such an extent that some have argued the president should be more active, not less.

None of this is to say that American democracy is free from danger. Social distancing impedes collective engagement, a central element of a democratic polity. Political polarization remains a potent and potentially debilitating force: surveys show that Republicans view the virus more skeptically than Democrats, and leaders of both parties are often at loggerheads over the best approach to the crisis.

Still, the American political system has shown considerable innovation, flexibility, and resiliency in the face of a major health crisis. Its death, it would seem, is far from imminent.

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