A Coronavirus Treatment for U.S. Democracy

Our democracy can survive this crisis—but we must take three vital steps to ensure that it does.

By Maresa Strano

Tagged coronavirusDemocracyElectionsFederalismmediavotingvoting rights

Free and fair elections, responsive and accountable public officials, a robust and inclusive civil society fueled by an informed citizenry—these are not just key ingredients of a healthy democracy. They are also key determinants of public health. Our democratic institutions, much like grocery stores and hospitals, are “essential” services that must be addressed amid the ongoing battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

Unfortunately, the outlook for democracy is pretty grim right now. Voting access is under threat, states are facing devastating budget shortfalls, mayors are being overruled on life-saving measures, workers are being abused, social safety nets are fraying, and communities across the country are without access to vital information.

But there are reasons to be hopeful: While the structural flaws in our public institutions may be particularly visible right now, most long predate the COVID-19 outbreak. Therefore, unlike this virus, we already have a good idea for how to treat them. If we seize on this moment of concentrated public awareness and legislative activity to lift up the most feasible of the available treatments, we can do more than just hasten our recovery from this crisis. By renovating our voting, media, and federal systems, we can be better prepared for, or even forestall, future crises sure to come.


With no clear end to social distancing in sight, adapting our election procedures is not a question of if  but how, not to mention how much? To pull off the remaining primaries and the November general election, states require financial, technical, and legal resources to ensure that everyone can register and vote safely, and that every ballot that should count does. It will also take public pressure, and a desire to extend the measures introduced this cycle beyond COVID-19.

The most salient measure on the menu is expanding vote-by-mail. Already the default method in Oregon, Washington, Utah, Hawaii, and Colorado, all-mail voting is a popular and cost-effective system whereby each eligible voter automatically receives a ballot in the mail well in advance of the election. Recipients may return the ballot by mail, drop it off at a polling site or designated drop-off location, or they can vote in person if they prefer. Universal vote-by-mail works best in concert with online voting registration, which is already offered in over 40 states, and also saves money. And despite recent claims by the likes of President Trump or Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, studies indicate that mail balloting is partisan neutral.

The legal foundation for vote-by-mail already exists in every state. Beside the five already mentioned, three states allow counties to implement all-mail elections at their discretion, while one-third permit small elections or elections in small jurisdictions to be run entirely by mail. Wherever mail balloting is not the standard, some form of absentee voting is available—an option Americans of all different political stripes have gradually embraced. Nearly one quarter of Americans cast absentee ballots in the 2016 presidential election (about double the amount from 2004). Combined, early and mail ballots made up more than 50 percent of all ballots cast in 16 states during the last presidential election cycle, many red and purple.

Still, 27 states reported vote-by-mail rates below 10 percent in the 2018 midterms, including key battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Whether it’s a chicken or egg scenario, most states still lack the infrastructure to handle a shift to mostly all-mail elections, and it may not be possible to scale up to, say, Oregon levels of preparedness before Election Day. With sufficient resources and motivation, though, they can at least get close enough to avoid disaster. So far, Congress has approved just $400 million for state election assistance, far short of the $1 to 4 billion that experts estimate states will need to cover the cost of printing, postage, staff, software, space for processing and absentee ballot duplication, and other expenses.

Pro-democracy funders and advocates are being proactive in their efforts to “virus-proof the vote”: They’re pushing for states to accept all ballots postmarked by Election Day and to modify witness and other signature matching requirements (which disproportionately disadvantage poor and minority voters), among other measures to reduce barriers to society’s most vulnerable voters. And more than half of the 16 remaining “excuse-only” absentee states have made accommodations for voters unwilling to turn out due to coronavirus.

But ensuring safe and equitable access to the ballot box should be treated as more than a temporary public health imperative. Adding and taking away ballot access privileges from one year to the next is confusing to voters, and weakens election officials’ arguments for investing in brand-new equipment that would make  ballot sorting and counting more efficient and affordable in the long run. Moreover, short-term relief measures fail to recognize the momentum that’s been building behind not only mail-balloting but other voting reforms, from online, automatic, and same-day voter registration to ranked-choice voting.

Special attention, then, should be paid to coronavirus-induced advances that are likely to pay “democracy dividends” for years to come. For instance, groups like Center for Technology and Civic Life are remotely training election officials on digital, data, and design skills; states and counties are exploring ballot tracking software to diminish ballot disappearances and illegitimacy claims; and the National Association of Secretaries of State has been holding regular conference calls, with experienced officials from all-mail states acting as clearinghouses of information for others.

Local News 

The prospect of a primarily vote-by-mail election means fewer opportunities for bad actors to deploy disinformation to undermine physical turnout. However, as we continue to counterbalance social distancing with extra screen time, we open ourselves up further to fake or misleading media. By rescuing local journalism from market failure, we can both minimize our vulnerability to misinformation around this year’s elections and  build a healthier democratic society.

Today, local news outlets are where citizens go to find out where to get a coronavirus test, or a free meal, or ask all manner of questions. But they serve an important purpose in “normal” times too. Local news keeps us informed and up to date on local elections, sporting and cultural events, civic and volunteer opportunities—facts and events that bind us to the people we’re closest to physically, if not always politically.

Unfortunately, local news was already at death’s door before the pandemic hit: The Great Recession collided with the digital content revolution to starve local outlets of advertising revenue, triggering a cascade of layoffs, bankruptcies, consolidation, and buyouts. Now, economic fallout from the coronavirus has caused a new cascade that could wipe out what’s left.

Journalists are the most obvious and direct casualties of this spiral. But when journalism suffers, democracy suffers too. Democracies depend on fact-based, place-based reporting to provide a check on the powerful and keep citizens informed. Without it, studies find, political partisanship and corruption flourish while civic engagement, electoral competitiveness and turnout, government and corporate accountability, and social cohesion wither.

Reporter Branden Hunter recently told CNN he was hired by the Detroit Free Press in January to write about neighborhoods but hasn’t had the chance to follow through on those stories. With so much staff on unpaid leave—as mandated by parent company, Gannett, to minimize profit losses resulting from the coronavirus—Hunter has been consumed by breaking news. Other Gannett-owned papers from Louisville, Kentucky’s The Courier-Journal to The Cincinnati Enquirer, have also reported being unable to adequately cover the pandemic and protests, let alone traditional beats. Situations like these are why most advanced democracies invest heavily in public media. Relative to our peer countries, the United States treats news as a commodity rather than a public good. And the folly of that approach is now on full display.

This period has reminded us of both the importance of local news (almost every state classified the work of news outlets as essential in their emergency declarations) and how close we are to losing it. As local journalists around the country go above and beyond to deliver information on the pandemic to the residents who need it most, beloved publications like Seattle’s weekly The Stranger magazine are dying; while contact tracers and epidemiologists emphasize the centrality of local reporting to their work identifying and tracking outbreaks in communities, their efforts are being hobbled by the fact that 50 percent of counties affected by COVID-19 as of early April were already news deserts, a figure that’s likely grown.

Now that we remember how much we value local journalism, there’s a lot that can be done (aside from subscribing to your local paper, if one still exists) to insulate the industry from this and subsequent economic upheavals.

Last year, PEN America, a nonprofit that promotes free expression, published a report on the decline of local news, which also included a helpful guide to its revival. Step one: Continue to expand philanthropic support of journalism (which has already nearly quadrupled in the last decade) as well as impact investments (a.k.a the “double bottom line” model, which measures performance in terms of financial return and social benefit), building on successes seeding and sustaining nonprofit and start-up news outlets such as The Texas Tribune, Chalkbeat, and the forthcoming Kansas City startup, The Beacon.

Then, because private capital alone cannot address the scope and scale of the local news crisis, we should also take immediate steps toward a non-commercial model. The Federal Communication Commission can reclaim its powers and responsibilities to protect local media in the public interest—no more rubber-stamping giant communication company mergers, or allowing at least a third of all commercial stations to continue to flout the public interest programming requirement. On the digital front, the government can levy taxes, such as a “link tax” (used by Germany and Spain) on platforms such as Google and Facebook, or a tax on paid digital advertising that directs revenue to public interest journalism.

Finally, the pandemic lights the path for greater public investment in local news through the federal Corporation of Public Broadcasting (the parent organization of PBS and NPR affiliates) and state entities, such as New Jersey’s Civic Information Consortium. Though many media experts and economists are leery of government intervention in journalism, we can take cues and comfort from democracies like Britain, where various configurations of public support (subsidies, license-fees, etc.) consistently deliver high-quality news at a cost that large majorities of citizens deem acceptable. In American terms, a 2018 Harvard/Northeastern study found that replenishing newsrooms to pre-2000 levels would cost about $1.4 billion annually over a six-year period. Not exactly pocket change, but a mere trifle in the context of coronavirus relief funding, and a wise investment to boot: In Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism, Stanford University professor James T. Hamilton calculated that every dollar spent on watchdog journalism “can generate hundreds of dollars in benefits to society.” Meanwhile, in a hyperpolarized political climate that’s become reliant on national media, the democratic value of ordinary local news—the kind that provides practical, place-based information without partisan inflection—is incalculable.


Like local news and voting processes, COVID-19 has reminded us that what happens at the state and local level matters. In the opening weeks of the pandemic, with no unifying response from the Trump Administration, many governors and other state officials stepped up to fill the void. Thus, the thinking became: Maybe our decentralized governing structure wouldn’t be such a liability in tackling this crisis after all.

But while some of that thinking has been borne out, years of cutbacks and capacity reduction (mainly emanating from the 2008 financial crisis), and predominantly conservative leadership bent on marginalizing progressive power, left states ill-equipped to save us from a dual public health and economic crisis.

Conversely, American cities, which absorbed much of their states’ post-recession financial burden, and which have so far taken the brunt of the virus, can lead the charge—if only states let them.

U.S. cities drive both their state economies, and, to a large extent, the global economy, while also serving as effective laboratories of democracy. Yet for the past decade, red states have pursued a coordinated governing strategy of invalidating, or “preempting,” local decisions made by blue cites—particularly those designed to make residents healthier, safer, and more economically stable—on the grounds that patchworks are economically harmful.  As Kim Haddow, executive director of the Local Solutions Support Center, told CityLab, many of the most common policies being preempted—barring local paid sick days, rent control, and public broadband, for example—are the ones “most needed right now.”

Coronavirus, besides highlighting those missed opportunities, has also seemingly reawakened Republicans’ devotion to localism. Before issuing statewide lockdowns, several red state governors known for aggressively restricting local control touted their deference to cities and counties on navigating COVID-19. “One size doesn’t fit all in this country,” declared Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves in March, echoing comments by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, among other Republican state executives.

This reversal in power may have come too late to mitigate the early-stage health and economic impact of the pandemic. And certainly, since then, many of these same officials have backpedaled on their defense of local decision-making, reasserting preemption powers over matters like re-opening procedures and mask-wearing—only to reverse course again amid the recent spike in infections across the South and West. Nonetheless, red state governors and lawmakers have a chance now to turn the page. Rather than repeat the mistakes of the post-recession era, they can unchain local democracy and update state laws governing local autonomy, known as “Home Rule.”

Last year, the National League of Cities and Local Solutions Support Center released a roadmap to Home Rule reform that, if followed, would reaffirm local governments’ initiative and fiscal powers, as well as place reasonable limits on preemption. In addition to stimulating more policy innovation and tax revenue, the principles they propose would prevent conservative-led states from specifically targeting cities best positioned to recover from the coronavirus.

Cities are our first line of defense against public health and economic catastrophes and the best offense in the effort to make our society more inclusive and equitable. By codifying their role in the modern federal structure, we can help offset other small-d democratic obstacles, from federal government obstructionism to state governments’ balanced-budget mandates.

After more than a decade of backsliding—marked by a string of damaging rulings on labor and voting rights as well as falling trust in public institutions—American democracy was finally looking poised for a rebound. As my New America colleague Mark Schmitt and I observed in February in our report  “Democracy Reform Issues in the 2020 Presidential Election,” the 2020 presidential candidates embraced bold democracy reform proposals to a degree reminiscent of the post-Watergate period. Now, the pandemic has further exposed the fissures in our democracy, giving the ideas described above a real shot at securing the attention, political currency, and multi-sector commitment necessary for widespread consideration. While these three categories of “treatments” should not be mistaken for cures, taken together they will go a long way toward restoring trust in our institutions, promoting civic engagement, and ultimately enhancing our ability to weather this era’s biggest challenges.

Read more about coronavirusDemocracyElectionsFederalismmediavotingvoting rights

Maresa Strano is a policy analyst with the Political Reform program at New America.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus