Experts say COVID-19 presents threats to democratic process in general election

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Five campus experts from varied disciplines talked about the challenges the coronavirus pandemic will present for the 2020 general election in the latest installment of the campus’s virtual conversation series Friday.

The panelists included academics from the campus’ schools of public policy and law, as well as the statistics department, each of whom brought a different perspective to the discussion moderated by campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, clarified that despite concern over whether the U.S. will hold a general election this year, the Constitution ensures one will occur. He added general elections took place during the Spanish flu pandemic, world wars and the Civil War, setting precedence for this fall.

Chemerinsky said the 20th Amendment guarantees government leadership succession takes place Jan. 20 following the election’s set date. So, even if an election does not take place this fall, the set chain of succession would lead to a transition of power to the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco. Chemerinsky added that this alone will ensure the general election will take place in November.

“No aspect (of politics) is being left untouched — from the basic mechanics of voting to the core issues at the heart of the campaigns,” Mogulof said during the event.

Campus statistics professor Philip Stark said he has concern over the security of the fall election, especially if states do not adopt thoughtful alternatives to in-person voting. He said decisions regarding mail-in voting systems need to be made soon, arguing August will be “too late.” Stark added that he would like hand-marked paper ballots, prepaid postage and a secure chain of custody to ensure election security if the country largely moves to mail-in ballots.

He said he is worried in particular about the possibility of states adopting online voting, which he said “opens the door” to potential opportunities for voter fraud.

“If you want universal enfranchisement, online voting is the way to go,” Stark said during the event. “But, universal means you are enfranchising Iranian hackers, Chinese hackers, Russian hackers and everybody else who wants to meddle.”

Henry Brady, dean of Goldman School of Public Policy, and professor Sarah Anzia took the lead in a discussion about candidates’ election chances.

Anzia said, in each general election year, political scientists will look to the fundamentals — the state of the economy and the president’s approval rating — to predict incumbents’ chances at reelection. Considering the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, Anzia said the state of the economy will likely not help President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

Though Brady said if Trump were able to to turn the economy around before November he would have a chance of winning, he agreed with Anzia and said it seems the situation may set up Democrats for a “tremendous victory.”

Anzia added that down-ballot Republicans will also hurt or benefit from Trump’s campaign, depending on its success in the coming months.

When Mogulof asked the panel if it saw the current situation as more of a “threat” or an “opportunity,” all panelists except Anzia said it was a threat to a fair political process. Berkeley Law Professor Bertrall Ross said he is concerned that the likely different nature of the 2020 general election may cause people to not view its results as legitimate.

“I think this election could represent the greatest existential threat to our republic, in terms of voting, that we’ve had,” Ross said during the event. “But I see opportunity if we can get it sort of somewhat right, and we have legitimate transfer of power. We could hopefully engage in real election reform in the future.”

Contact Rachel Barber at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.