Covid-19 has radically reshaped how we approach nearly all aspects of day to day life.
Elections and the campaigns that accompany them likewise have been heavily impacted over the course of this year, and we have likely witnessed fundamental changes that will remain beyond our current pandemic circumstances. In 2020, we not only had to navigate the complications of a socially distant election process, but we also saw how the resurgence of the virus struck at exactly the wrong time for a president whose campaign was predicated on downplaying its dangers.
In holding its unwavering hard line against the severity of covid-19, the Trump administration and campaign failed to adequately prepare for a campaign season dominated by mail-in voting and virtual discourse. In a world where the vast majority of Americans accepted that digital viability had become a necessity for survival, this refusal to acknowledge the realities at hand crippled the ability of the Trump campaign to fully compete within the rapidly evolving scope of the current election.
The pandemic undeniably altered the outcome of this election, and not just in terms of substantive policy lines. The way we think about campaigning and the voting process has been relatively consistent over recent memory, with upgrades and modernizations such as increased mail-in or early voting options coming at a gradual pace and varying greatly by state. The necessity of implementing rapid broad stroke availability of remote registration and voting options opened a floodgate for changes that likely would have otherwise taken years to come to fruition, and are unlikely to be rolled back now that they have been unveiled.
Much like in the business world, where Zoom meetings have become ubiquitous and perhaps a permanent replacement for many of our previous in-person meetings, business trips and seminars, people recognize the benefits of some of these changes which were forced upon us. If working from home has proven to be as effective as an office setting in many cases, then voting from home as a default cannot be far behind. The vast majority of reports from some of the most respected agencies in government (such as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency) and historically unbiased reporting agencies like the AP have concluded that tens of millions of votes were cast by mail without any indication of fraud. Claims to the contrary by those on the losing end have come without substantiating evidence.
That doesn’t mean the experience was perfect and that there were no difficulties, but considering the grand scale of changes to be implemented in a very short time, the switch to vote by mail-reliant elections appears to have been largely successful. It is no longer a question if another pandemic will require us to make different plans for Election Day — it is a matter of when. Knowing this, improvements can be made and systems implemented to further streamline and standardize the process. Perhaps the most critical steps will be to give voters ample forward knowledge of their options for voting and to allow election officials to prepare for the immense task of counting the influx of extra mail-in ballots in a timely manner. We owe it to every voter in the United States to prepare for that eventuality.
In 2020, we saw more people than ever before make use of voting by mail as well as early in-person voting, and it is expected that many will prefer those options to go to the polls in the future. While many Americans long have considered casting a ballot on Election Day an essential activity — particularly those whose ancestors were historically denied the right — this year the realities of our circumstances necessitated change, and many people put their personal feelings aside in the name of public safety. This should be commended.
We should support any effort that encourages greater voter participation while keeping our elections safe and free from fraud or interference. Electronic voting certainly is a possibility on the near horizon. Digital voter registration and ballot tracking systems already have been implemented online and via app in some places, with heavy usage from voters. Security is a necessary concern, but billions of dollars are transferred around the world every minute with the click of the button, and blockchain technology and tokenized securities have even rendered property transactions into strings of unhackable code. If we accept e-voting as a given soon to emerge, we certainly can build the requisite infrastructure to support its proper usage.
As go our elections, so also must go campaign structure and strategy to match. Increased early voting, by mail or in person, has shifted the focus from Election Day to the days and weeks leading up to it. Shifting voter outreach and advertising schedules to coincide with the arrival of ballots is sure to become the new normal, with the ability to anticipate when an individual is likely to vote to become the latest statistic of focus. Keeping day-to-day inventory on who already has returned a ballot or has yet to vote creates a cat-and-mouse game of constantly reallocating resources and shifting messaging to try to put the right words in front of the right voters at the right times. A balance of foresight and planning with the ability to observe and adapt on the fly will be a highly sought commodity in this type of election environment.
The redistribution of funds and manpower from typical massive Election Day get-out-the-vote operations into more measured ongoing efforts on multiple fronts will require a complete reboot of strategy. The elongated time frame and increased need for spending upfront will similarly alter the fundraising game, forcing contributors to expose themselves to public scrutiny far earlier than usual, possibly impacting their candidates’ public personas by association.
It will take time to analyze trends in candidates and campaigns, determining who won or lost based on specific activities. Online engagement already has proven to be a defining factor, but as more people consume more and more digital content, the extent of a candidate’s presence will not be as critical a factor as their brand maintenance.
President Trump spent four years demonstrating just how powerful digital engagement can be. While we may not agree on the content of his often-controversial Twitter posts, he was easily the most digitally present president in the history of the republic. However, with this notoriety came infamy for large scale gaffes, from mistakes and misspellings to statements proven to be false and controversial rhetoric including political, racial, or personal attacks.
In an age where accusations of interference from Russia or China have flown from both parties, and social media moguls such as Mark Zuckerberg have been called to testify in front of congress regarding the validity of election-related content, people are more attuned to scrutiny in this sphere than Trump likely realized.
Called to task on allowing alleged interference or false advertising to muddle their platforms in the past, social media outlets took preventative measures, such as adding taglines and links to objective sources on content deemed misleading and restricting political ads to launch at least a week prior to Election Day in order to head off last-minute attacks with no time for the voters to verify critical information. Trump stayed his course, apparently preferring to try to energize his base, and clearly did in surpassing his 2016 vote totals, but it was not enough to dissuade or overcome a much larger surge of votes for Joe Biden.
We saw three critical changes to this election cycle where Trump was either unwilling or unable to adapt. Amidst a pandemic or any natural disaster, people want a savior or at least a strong leader with a steady hand. By downplaying covid-19, Trump was unable to play that role because he denied the need for it existed. Too many people got sick or lost loved ones to this disease for that tactic to come out in his favor, and it ultimately was the foremost issue facing our nation in 2020. It’s tough to gloss over that.
Anticipating that increased access to mail-in or early voting would tend to benefit Democrats, Trump again miscalculated. He chose to attack the process rather than compete in the vote by mail forum, urging Republicans to wait and vote in person on Election Day. In the process, he likely lost a number of Republican voters who were too scared to go vote or gave up after experiencing long lines. More critically, by keeping his focus on Election Day turnout, he likely lost out on properly competing for substantial numbers of middle-ground voters who cast early ballots. Had he simply accepted that voting by mail was happening and campaigned in earnest for his slice of that pie, he may still have seen 60-40 losses instead of 80-20, but those margins could have swung key states for him in the electoral count. He refused to play the game and for all practical purposes forfeited as a result.
Finally, in the digital sphere, he placed quantity over quality without regard to how that overload would be digested by voters beyond his established base. With more focus and therefore more scrutiny on digital content, his brand of fanfare over fact politics failed to connect with or persuade the necessary voters. By so frequently and glaringly overstepping the normal bounds of decorum and burden for truth, he crippled the reach of the very presence he worked so hard to amass over the years. His behavior was no longer enough of a spectacle to move anyone beyond his base, and yet was still enough of spectacle that too many onlookers saw it as that and nothing more, and discounted his message as mere show.
Apart from the illnesses and deaths of too many Americans, the impact on our families and our economy, and the profound restrictions placed on our current way of life, covid-19 also has forced us to confront aspects of daily life that we have taken for granted. The political process has not been immune from this reassessment, as the 2020 election has shown us.
Our challenge is to keep an open mind and open eyes in confronting these difficulties, so we can properly adapt. The failure to do so already has shown itself to have a resounding impact at all levels of our society. The U.S. electoral system does indeed have the capacity to weather unprecedented challenges, and developments in technology carry with them the promise that future challenges will be able to be overcome, but we must be ready and willing to evolve along with them.
Covid-19 will go away. The United States will remain.