The coronavirus outbreak has pushed some of the important events of this year including the Olympics and the UN’s Cop26 Climate Conference. Keeping in mind how the events have turned out in the past couple of months amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, that has impacted a number of things, the 2020 US Presidential Elections could be next in line. The Presidential Primary Elections have gone down with 15 states already postponing the primaries this year. The Democratic Convention has also been postponed and campaigns do not have the conventional tone they take every four years. The uncertainty associated with the future of the elections has made the regular campaign rallies not ‘regular’ anymore. Now, Joe Biden is confined indoors and struggling to make his presence felt at the national conversation. But Donald Trump, on the other hand, has taken to the television with daily coronavirus briefings and updates which may benefit him moderately, some polls suggest.
The pandemic points to the possibility of Trump’s re-election or the election of the former Vice President, Joe Biden. The race is now narrowed down to two candidates after Bernie Sanders, the Senator from Vermont, formally suspended his presidential campaign. However, this will not be the end of Biden’s problems as he needs support from the voters that Barack Obama and his Democratic counterpart Bernie Sanders enjoyed. They both were popular amongst the young voters, but this may not be a problem considering the very poor young voter turnout in the US. But it is definitely going to influence the popular vote and that will not be a good news for Biden. The conventional campaigning takes a hit as the candidates cannot take to the streets due to the ongoing health crisis. Therefore, Biden and Trump have to make their presence felt digitally more than ever before, which is definitely not a piece of cake for them.
Biden does not seem to be doing well even on the Internet as everyone’s attention is on the pandemic. This particular fact will not show a significant downfall any time soon but it may have an effect in the long run. Biden’s approval ratings stand at 47.3 per cent, but this can change in no time if the President continues to appeal to the people 24/7 with his updates (like he is now) and if his Internet campaign continues to take a toll.
It can be argued that the “rally-around-the-flag” effect is really taking off at this point. Since it is the election year, the impact will only increase. Therefore, it is not surprising to see that Trump’s ratings have reached a new high at around 45.8%. The people seeing him on their screens everyday with the coronavirus briefings and updates may give him an edge over his rival. It may seem like the pandemic is tailor-made to throw light on how Trump is trying to move in the right direction but it also explicates his administration’s shortcomings. The crisis also threw light on the acute unpreparedness for an outbreak of the sort. The US now has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world and if the administration was farsighted the curve could have been flattened.
The impact of the virus is all the more highlighted considering how Trump repeatedly assured the public that the virus was “under control” when it clearly was not. During a press conference, the President said the US might be getting on top of the ‘curve’, he may even be right, provided the top of the curve was the highest number of fatalities and not the other way round.
There are multiple reasons to believe that Presidential Elections could be affected by the outbreak, which include the postponement of certain important events such as the Convention and Super Tuesday in some states.
It can be argued that the chances of postponement of the Presidential Elections are highly improbable and rather bleak considering the elections are scheduled for November 2020. As of April 21, 2020, the US has the highest number of COVID-19 cases with 7,84,599 confirmed cases and 42,138 reported deaths. Therefore, keeping the statistics in mind, the country has a long way to go in terms of recovering and getting back to a ‘normal’ state of affairs. With this atmosphere, the chances of the elections happening are highly unlikely but not unprecedented.
The US requires an electoral college to elect the President on the basis of popular vote, which means that electors need to be selected from all the 50 states. This may lead us to believe that the magnitude of people involved is reduced but it is much more complicated in the sense that the federal law requires all the electors to be appointed on a particular date. One potential possibility is that The Presidential Election Day Act may be modified to change the date and this requires both the houses of the US Congress to pass the amendment and the President to sign it. Considering the highly controversial and polarised nature of the US political system, the potentiality of a modification of this sort is highly unlikely.
Even if the elections are postponed, it cannot go beyond two months after November 3 as President Trump’s term comes to an end on January 20, 2021, and he cannot stay in office unless he is re-elected. According to the 20th Amendment, the Vice President will act as President until a President is qualified. But here is a caveat, the Vice President Mike Pence’s term will also come to an end around the same time as that of the President. Next in line would be the Speaker of the House, while the Congress has to figure out how to deal with the situation without a President or a Vice President. A modification of the date is possible but that requires an amendment of the Constitution and that will take months to happen. However, an alternate option of voting can be considered as opposed to going out in polling places and that is mail-in balloting which is already present in states such as Washington. In this process, voters do not have to physically show up. However, for this to happen in all states the Congress has to pass a law.
It is going to be quite a ride even if the elections are postponed or not, simply because this has never happened before. We are in uncharted waters and the lack of experience in the arena is going to cost us a new world order.
Abhirami B is Research Intern with CPPR. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.