FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: US has held elections during times of crisis before

Galen Druke speaks to elections analyst Geoffrey Skelley about how the United States have handled elections in times of crisis in the past, from wars to natural disasters.
21:05 | 04/01/20

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Transcript for FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: US has held elections during times of crisis before
Hello and welcome to the 530 politics I can't find do you and so far this year sixteen presidential primaries have been postponed. Out of concern for the spread of cold it ninety. Which raises the question of how America deals when administering elections during times of crises. We held elections before during the civil war during the flu of the nineteen teens during World War II. And it looks like we're going to be facing challenges when we hold elections again. This year so here we need to talk about how we've dealt with those historical crises is Jeffrey -- 530 elections analysts hate Jeff thanks for patriot. And thanks. So first off let's start with a really basic question Jeff has the American presidential election ever been postponed and is it even possible. It is never really bad press. It's basically since the mid nineteenth century. Congress backing AT 45 actually passed a law setting the date of the election. Which is why we have it in November. And basically that laws have been changed I'm so it would take a congressional action. To move the date. Of the presidential contests and you know that's difficult to imagine happening obviously it would be a really partisan conversation I'm sure everything's parts and to some extent. These days but. As you get closer closer to it I think the idea of delaying it. That that would just really be an unprecedented situation. At no matter what our inauguration date is in the constitution would have to happen before. Report January 2 point presumably. Right and that's and other challenges like while if you move it back. Does that affect other things. It's just it's just really hard to imagine there being a consensus on that actually move that date. I think the all male or nearly nearly all mail voting in those states are all states. You know those are the sorts conversations I think people will be happening more so than moving election back. Yeah I mean. We have already seen a more than it dollars and presidential primaries. Be postponed is that unprecedented. Let's. Modern precedent for a primary mood for some reason I'm even. In a disaster situation. Actually happened with. New York City New York State had a primary in 2001 that happened be scheduled for September 11. Obviously it was not easy to keep voting that case governor. Basically declared emergency and canceled the now postponed the primary. And so this it was acting actually happened a couple weeks later. But that's obviously a particularly extreme case for something happened the very day of the primary. In terms of presidential primaries being because pound for some sort of in active got kind of cataclysm thing that hasn't happened it's one thing to postpone it cousins. Lawsuits year. Court orders because of something about the election administration error or something related to the ballot but it stiff unit that hasn't anything like this before. Is it. Concerning from. Us the standpoint of you narrow. The integrity of horror institution of elections in the United States that these elections had been postponed or is it. Just you know good public health. Measures I mean I guess if it's at the tension and maybe it's hard to say which is better. Arm but no doubt postponing elections cat have some effect on the outcome right. Well absolutely I mean look we're in this weird situation with the democratic presidential primary where it looks like for all intents and purposes. Joseph Biden will be the nominee for the Democrats. Unless something crazy happens and now we're in this weird. Period where. Wisconsin this probably voting. At the beginning of April though it's it's a little unclear at the moment there's some lawsuits about that pause you know calls to postpone it. I did and after that you have already long period without without much activity because a lot of states have to respond. I'm so it's it's a strange situation where for the presidential. Process to proceed. You need those states hold their votes that we can identify how many delegates a candidate has one. Behind the scenes. The Democratic Party in particular because the Republican Party has yet their choice is clear the incumbent president. For the Democrats there's all this behind the scenes stuff that has to go on in terms of actually picking those delegates a lot of states have. Sort of like a caucusing process that state party runs to determine. The unity of delegates that will go and represent. The presidential candidates at the convention which of course the national conditions in question now so there's a solo a lot of confusion and uncertainty that's running all that. What purpose and a bit of historical context you marriage in the New York primary on 9/11 what other kinds of crises. Have our elections survived. I think it a good sign is that we managed to hold a presidential election gear in the midst of the civil war. I'm an 1864 and actually we also held the mid term election which wasn't necessarily on the same date back in the day but around 1860 to you. There were at the mid term elections as well. So. And we've managed to do that even when that country lets you know torn apart so that's. Reassuring. To some extent. I mean how that happened Heidi you. How do you administer are an election during a civil war. While. You have people go to the polls. Anyway I mean he didn't have you know disease. Impacting the ability of people to go to the polls who weren't serving. And importantly. The administration allow many states really made a push to enable soldiers to vote. Osce had some really early forms earth. Absentee balloting going on in some cases. Election officials from states would travel to you. Where large groups of soldiers from their state were located and do the balloting Daryn and bring the vets back. I'm it sounds kinda not spied. Yeah that was a really early form of absentee voting now there were some partisan intrigue and all of this because there was a belief that. Soldiers. Were more likely to vote. For the GOP the Republican Party. And so there was. Republicans controlled turner state governments and it pushed chew. Pass laws permitting the sort of practice. And it was is also very different time in the ballots for instance were produced by the parties not the state. So there's some some weirdness there that's not really at all relevant to our conversations today. A but it is does show sort of how OK we're in the midst of this crisis we need to figure out away TU. Make it easier for soldiers to vote because they are particularly hampered by being out in the field. So let's let's figure out the best way to do this. And and we see that and other crises as well which I'm happy to guide to. Yet so civil war probably. The most relevant experience the country as would have been dispatched where in the nineteen teens. What did we need due I'd also like how did it end up affecting. There was also. Right so 1918. The mid term election now Woodrow Wilson's second mid term as president. Were in the midst of World War I fact over one is actually about to end but no one knows that. You know going into Election Day right then there. It's gonna and little of for a week after the election. I what you have. It. Is kind of agency situation where in the civil war he saw actions to try to help soldiers dote. But this time around so the soldiers being you know in the continental United States. They are overseas. I and you have a couple million men and only men could really go at this point now isn't true in every state but in most states only men could vote. In the presidential elector or eighty sort of federal election. And you had a couple million men overseas. Mostly in France. I answer that made it more difficult to get them ballots that put him in a position to be able to vote. So actually not a lot was done to help them and then on top of that you have been influenza crisis and it happened to actually really ratcheted up really keep going. In the fall of 1918 and in some parts the country particularly the west's it was really peaking in its severity around election. I'm so. You would think that that affected turnout and overall turnout. In the election among the voting helpful population was about 40%. Which was well down from 1910 in 1914 mid term elections where a little over 50% participated in business. So. The war obviously plated it rolled area a couple million out in a potentially eligible voters. Overseas. But the same time you had and I talked some experts that this it had. Photos of people lining up in San Francisco to vote wearing. Masks. You know what kind of atmosphere is that offer for encouraging people not to vote. So you know undoubtedly it affected thanks to some extent there was a report I think Andy in the LA times. Right around and that said that roughly 40000 the estimated 40000 people that vote and Siebert Cisco because of because of the influence of panic. And it was a relate how much about it and that's an interest in question because people. Actually went and voted despite fears about the disease there was it was also a different time in terms. You're in the middle of a war. There's a lot of patriotic. Fervor. A lot of calls about doing your duty. Com there was like Italy times. Headlined talked about like every Californian will do their duty go to the polls. It's so I think that played a role in. Sort of they're not being much conversation about ocean we postpone the election should we be doing this right now. In the it with the public health crisis. Instead he went voter turnout was down. By people sold it. Does it. Does it seem at all that the final result was affected by voting patterns that changed because of either. Influenza or World War I. There isn't really any evidence that I've seen about how it might have affected the results it Leeson in in. Really empirical. Digging into the data way. But there were observers of the time including the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Who felt that there were some results and a couple states there was a quote mentioned in and our red talking about. Kentucky and Indiana that it's a Republican leaning areas the party didn't do as well as you'd normally expected. Eyes and some may be Republican gains should have been even larger it's important understand that this is the second mid term for for Wilson Woodrow Wilson. And his party did very poorly in the 1918 mid terms are Republicans to control the house and the senate and that election. So but at least the RNC chairman assaying while our games could have been even bigger. So maybe did it affect and to some except at its heart and. I think probably the other major example we have of voting during a time of crisis would be world worked do. You know you imagine that not a lot was done to ensure that soldiers could during World War I did that change at all for the second world. More yes there was a push. To make it easier for soldiers to vote now in the 1942 mid term election. It didn't really have much of an impact on him yet understand that the publication here. Is he had states that minister elections. And then you have. Save fifty different state apparatuses to deal. And fact that point it's 48 is last in white states yet but the point is you have all these are the sixty need to administer by sending. Ballots overseas but unlike in previous conflicts. The troops were really group together by state I think it's important understand that over time. We are military move from aid. Calling up troops that all came together to state and like a brigade to be made up entirely soldiers from the saints they seem like to local community even. To a system where. You know up put tuner wow brigade whatever has. People from all over so how do you make it easy to get ballots from you know if you got five guys from New York six from Alabama for it is how you make it. Easy for them to get the ballot from their state. Other respects today when they're all over the place and alt all mixed up. State by state. So there was a push to get federal ballots at least suffer for congressional office. To use those voters but it it largely failed in 94 to didn't work really well at all. But in 1944 date they came back and tried to make it even easier. And actually and it I think estimates something right two and a half. Close to three million soldiers did vote in the 1944 presidential election now. In those forty to you in 44 turnout was was notably down from the previous mid term her presidential election. A so you know it's likely that the war. Impacted voting. In terms of lowering turnout on but at least in the unity 44 presidential election. There was more turnout because soldiers. Did manage to vote in large numbers and in fact because of the way the votes for separated out some seats could actually see. That in New Jersey. Franklin resident actually carried the state cause of the soldier bent. Over Thomas -- his Republican opponent that's an actually that the the votes from overseas actually make the difference for FDR. So these kinds of provisions for dealing with crises can. I'd make the difference in a presidential election. I need to be clear to be clear FDR would have won election without meters by. You know after thinking if it's closer election and the soldier very ends up making a difference then yeah definitely. Yeah so I think the last can of big example you wrote a piece looking at these historical examples last when you mentioned west. Hurricanes sandy. Which happened right before you know like. A week and a half before the presidential election 2012 it is that aren't actually in New York. My point plays was flooded it was the basement of the church and to be moved our polling place. To allow people you know continue to vote what kinds of other measures were taken to ensure that. Election could continue in in the tristate area along the East Coast where sandy impacted states heart. Right so I think the view is that new York New Jersey suffered the maoists. Because of sandy and in New Jersey actually you had. Basically when he was displaced by the storm. On the date that the government New Jersey said OK you count as an overseas voter now on which opened up. Outweigh means for vindicate. Absentee ballot applications or even an absentee ballot to their election administrator a different way. I'm Dave they keep email letter faxes it basis made it easier for them to get that. Information to the election administrator. Bomb the 'cause they over basic put under this the scatters station. In New York you eat he saw the shifting of polling places and yet that injures two on the shifting. Even in some cases people a division tense. I'm obviously because it happened so soon right before the election that was a real challenge for trying to make. These rules quick changes to enable people to participate in the election and you did see New Jersey I think particularly. Early evidence I found. In some cases some counties work sort of overwhelmed. By the number of people sending in. Absentee ballot information. They just couldn't handle it all because of just as much larger than than normal not theories dealing with and obviously some people in those places. He may have been dealing with election measures were also personally affected so there is it was it was habitat hazard. Yeah I mean I think there was no question crew. Would win new York and New Jersey and it inaugural presidential election. But was there any indication that the overall turnout was impacted by the storm. Right yet there was at least one study found that that showed that areas where the storm surge was particularly high. Turnout in those places was deathly down compared to the rest of the state. And in terms thinking about potential impact on the outcome. Now while yes as you point out new York New Jersey please states they weren't really expected to be competitive in any way. There was at least once said it found that they've suggested that Obama may have won. Virginia which he carried to think about by about four points three hassles like that. And in 2012 that it may have carried it in part because turnout was affected in the eastern part of the state. In some places that were hit by by hurricane sandy. Now there was some that was sort of the counter factual investigation but nonetheless. He would've changed the outcome overall like it's its past ABC. And I mean just does and maybe doesn't necessarily affect who can barter how they vote. But there was a lot of discussion at the time about whether or not there was a rally around the flag a fact whether. President Obama going to New Jersey and having the Republican. Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie giving him like a big hard on the tarmac and whether that decreased partisan sentiment and ended up helping. Obama oh win re election which you know is not about the election administration but. About how crises can affect elections I don't know if you have any take on whether or not. There was a significant enough rally around the flag effect but it actually did impact the auction. United fighting it specifically talked about that but you're absolutely right that that we could potentially shift. A conversation. And make people. View the president in a more positive light even if they didn't approve them previously. And we're you know we're seeing. President trump actually. Maybe benefit from that a little bit to our colleagues in breakage written about that. So yeah I mean that definitely could have plates solemn role though I I do wonder if it was more localize. The and say what we're going to right now. I'm in terms of areas hit vs ears weren't whereas everyone to some extent. Is dealing with this obviously some place has been hit harder than than others by the current buyers by. To sense that everyone is is concerned about this. Dia are well Jeffrey thank you so much for giving us some insight into the history of the US dealing with administering elections during times of crisis and really. Interesting to hear and you know kind of sets is the State's offer this fall in terms of whether or not we can come up with good solutions to voting during a pandemic because. When you don't come up with those mitigating strategies he does a fact. Who can vote and how. So. Thank you Jeff. It dates or have me. Aren't likely with Barrett my name is dealing. Rick Tony chow is in the virtual control room you get in touch right emailing us at pod cast at 538 dot com you can also of course greeted us with questions. Comments if you're a fan of the show Vivus or reading or review in the apple podcast store or tell someone about us you can also find us on YouTube. Thanks for listening and Wilson's.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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