By Nicholas Donaldson
As our nation continues to deal with the myriad of issues that arise from the COVID-19 pandemic, the highly contentious November elections offered no respite. The long lines and close proximity to others that define normal election seasons became serious threats to public health and since the primaries this year operations were anything but business as usual. Due to the fragile and dire state of the nation’s public health, the United States saw significant changes in the way elections take place. For example, in the 2020 primaries, 50.3% of total votes cast were cast absentee/by mail, compared to 27.4% in the 2018 primaries. In this year’s general election, 97 million votes were cast early, compared to 43 million early votes in 2016. These changes were complicated by the fact that large numbers of mail-in ballots have the capability of delaying election results. States like Nevada, Georgia, and Pennsylvania were the subjects of extensive media coverage this year as state election officials experienced necessary delays in processing absentee ballots. Furthermore, not all states offered no-excuse mail-in ballots, Louisiana among them. The issue of mail-in ballots was just one of the numerous problems that governments, voters, and candidates faced this election season.
The Power Coalition for Equity and Justice is one group in Louisiana working to inform and encourage voters amidst the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-pandemic, the Power Coalition worked in communities across Louisiana in an effort to increase civic engagement through information sessions, voter registration, and leadership development. While the organization continued this work during the 2020 election season, it was not without difficulties. Peter Robins-Brown, the Communications Director for the Power Coalition, tells me “Usually during election season we are out across the state doing door to door canvassing. We’re doing live events like community listening sessions and candidate forums, and we’re showing up at other people’s events to pass out materials. Obviously, that’s been significantly curtailed with COVID.” As a way to continue informing voters while also adhering to safety guidelines, the Power Coalition has become more dependent on technology. “We moved live events online for the most part. We’re doing candidate forums, panels, and listening sessions via zoom” Robins-Brown says. While the Power Coalition and similar groups were fortunate enough to be able to conduct operations online, this impersonal, but necessary, mode of communication has made it increasingly more difficult to connect with voters on a personal level.
The experience of the Power Coalition this election season, however, was not entirely negative. Due to the variety of issues that continue to arise due to COVID-19 and the highly contentious nature of this year’s elections, the Power Coalition saw a significant increase in voter interest and engagement. “It does seem like people are really eager to vote this year, we’re seeing a lot of energy and that makes it a little bit easier,” says Robins-Brown “Sometimes we are trying to stoke that energy and excitement, but this year that isn’t as much of an issue.” Going unaffected by the wide variety of problems the pandemic has caused is impossible for most, if not all, citizens. This global crisis has sparked many citizens who were previously politically unengaged to reexamine the role they can play in electing competent officials. “A lot of times we hold voter registration events and get three people. With these drive-thru ones, we’ve been seeing over the course of three hours around a hundred cars come through. We’re noticing a much higher volume of people getting out and showing up for these events” says Robins-Brown.
The pandemic also altered how those running for office approached their campaign strategies. Howard Kearney, a Libertarian candidate who ran for election to the U.S. House to represent Louisiana’s first Congressional District, tells me, “Normally I would go door to door and hand out door hangers, but [this year] I felt like I shouldn’t walk the neighborhood with a mask on.” For Kearney and other candidates, the challenge this year was not only adhering to recommended social-distance protocols for safety reasons but also to maintain a positive public perception. “It’s bad enough that you walk a neighborhood and there’s a strange person walking the neighborhood, put a mask on them and you get Mommas taking their babies off the streets” says Kearney. As the pandemic continues to affect almost all aspects of our lives, the traditional in-person campaigning strategies were no longer viable nor effective this election season. “I fear of what others might fear from me” Kearney says. Furthermore, venues that pre-pandemic would offer candidates a chance to meet large numbers of people in a social setting, were unavailable in the same capacity this year. Pre-pandemic, Kearny tells me he would “usually go to coffee shops, but they’re now basically closed for all real, practical purposes.” These issues highlight the various difficulties candidates had in connecting with voters. As a way to combat this, candidates, like Kearney, made an effort to increase their online, social media presence. “I think that radio and TV, the traditional media platforms, are dying out. As younger voters are more used to getting their information via the internet those platforms are dying” says Kearney. And with the increasing use of technology that COVID necessitates, this change will likely only continue to grow. While Kearney lost the election to incumbent Steve Scalise, offices like the Orleans Parish Criminal Court saw almost half of the sitting Judges replaced.
Angel Harris ran for Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge-Section L. While the process of running for office during a normal year is difficult enough, it is even more so for a first-time candidate during a global pandemic; however, Harris did not let her election inexperience deter her. “Because this was my first time ever running, I didn’t really have any expectations. In a way, it made it easier for me because I didn’t have to shift or adjust” says Harris. Nevertheless, there were certainly obstacles for ballot newcomers hoping to challenge incumbents, the lack of name recognition being prominent among them. Harris tells me, “I knew that it would be important for me to have name recognition in my race so I had to figure out ways to get that. While social-distance protocols and masks often dissuade social interaction, Harris found that the pandemic made people more accessible and receptive. “Because a lot of folks were at home, due to COVID, many people were sitting out on their porch. I was able to engage with more people I think than I actually would if I was doing physical door knocking as more people were sort of voluntarily already outside,” says Harris, “People were more willing to talk because they were cooped up in their house for so long.” While adherence to safety remained paramount for the Harris campaign, they also used the pandemic as a catalyst to talk about community issues and her platform. Harris tells me, “I think indirectly COVID-19 helped me to spread my message and make it more digestible for folks. It was easier to have some of the conversations that I was having because COVID exposed a lot of things.” Harris’s campaign occurred at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and the series of nation-wide protests against police brutality spurred by the murder of George Floyd. Key issues that Harris focused on in her conversations with voters were “equal access to justice, alternatives to incarceration and ending the criminalization of poverty.” These issues of racial injustice have been further complicated by the pandemic and Harris’s platform emphasizing the necessity of change, rather than maintenance of the status quo, resonated with voters. With over 94,000 votes, Harris won the election over nine-year incumbent Franz Zibilich, serving as a reminder that sitting officials can be unseated, even in the most unconventional of circumstances.
Harris’s impressive 94,000 votes in a local down-ballot election is representative of a nation-wide trend. Over 161 million Americans voted in this year’s general election, the most votes in US history. Furthermore, President-elect Joe Biden received the highest number of votes for a presidential candidate in the nation’s history with almost 80 million votes. It is doubtless that the COVID-19 pandemic played a significant role in this year’s increased voter engagement.
“The pandemic didn’t stop people coming out to the polls which is very inspiring,” Harris says, “that could have been an easy excuse for people to say ‘No, you know there’s COVID, I’m just not going to worry about it’ but people came out and voted despite COVID-19.” Peter Robins-Brown and the Power Coalition have a similar view on how this pandemic will affect elections in the coming years. While the necessity for masks and social distancing may not always be present in the future, our country’s growing reliance on technology, accelerated by COVID-19, will likely remain. Robins-Brown tells me, “I think people are getting more information online than ever before and I think people looking to social media for their voter information is something that will become more of a habit. I like to think there will be a lot more civic engagement going forward.”