Into Democracy Delayed
Archival Recording: Breaking news tonight. Americans on virtual lock-down to slow the spread of the Coronavirus.
Archival Recording: A single moment, your whole concept of life and society can be shaken.
Archival Recording: We really want people to be separated at this time.
Trymaine Lee: This week Americans woke up to a new reality.
Archival Recording: Little is off the table, in terms of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Trump: To unleash the full power of the federal government through this effort today I am officially declaring a national emergency. Two very big words.
Archival Recording: As people across the country rush to find testing sites hospitals are being pushed to their limit already by what we've seen today. New York's governor sounded the alarm over a shortage of life-saving ventilators.
Governor Cuomo: Please cooperate with us.
Archival Recording: It will go down in the history books as one of those moments of true crisis and confusion and chaos.
Lee: Schools closed. Performances went dark.
Archival Recording: We don't know how long this crisis will last.
Archival Recording: These guidelines are very specific. They will only work if every American takes this together to heart.
Archival Recording: The numbers are still going up, no matter what you do. It's how much up they go that is the issue.
Archival Recording: Americans are now sacrificing their normal lives and daily routines and, maybe worse of all, sacrificing a sense of community.
Archival Recording: It is how we respond to that challenge that is gonna determine what the ultimate end point is gonna be.
Lee: Employees were told to work from home. Some were told there would be no work at all. There are currently more than 9,000 cases of Coronavirus across the U.S. The virus has now reached all 50 states, resulting in more than 150 deaths. And the death toll is sure to climb. Public health experts are sounding the alarm that this pandemic is escalating so quickly it could overwhelm the nation's hospitals and caregivers. This is all unfolding as the country is also preparing for a major presidential election.
Archival Recording: So let's begin with the most important issue right now, the Coronavirus and what you would do as president in the face of it.
Lee: Sunday's Democratic debate hosted by CNN was held without an audience. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were at podiums six feet apart. They didn't shake hands. And the virus stole the show.
Vice President Joe Biden: This is bigger than anyone of us. This is-- calls for a national rallying to everybody move together.
Senator Bernie Sanders: We need to move aggressively to make sure that the test kits are out there, that the ventilators are out there, that the ICU units are out there, that the medical personnel are out there.
Lee: This week Arizona, Florida, and Illinois held primaries but with an increase in drop-off and absentee ballots and a decrease in in-person turnout. And last Friday, Louisiana became the first state to announce that it would be postponing its primary to guard against the spread of the Coronavirus.
Archival Recording: Today I have certified that a state of emergency exists and requested that the governor issue an executive order postponing the elections this spring.
Lee: In Ohio, where I spent the first part of this week a fight erupted at the highest levels of government over whether to push back the election. In the end, the governor defied a court ruling and ordered polling sites shut down. On Tuesday morning I stood outside of the Fairfax Recreation Center in Cleveland and it was completely quiet.
There was no one there for morning workout, no kids playing ball, and certainly no voting. As a journalist the only time I've experienced anything like it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, when the silence that fell across the city was deafening and thick, when the city was left a ghost town and so much uncertainty hung in the air. For everyone it has been a confusing and chaotic week. And because of this virus democracy will be delayed.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America, a podcast about politics, about policy, and the power that both have in shaping the lives of the American people. Today we're heading into the intersection of politics and a pandemic to understand how the spread of Coronavirus is changing the 2020 primary season, why some states are taking extraordinary steps, and what it means for voters who are planning to go to the polls.
Archival Recording: This is going to affect, I think, a lot of people's determination (COUGH) on who is gonna sit in that oval office, not just in this next election but from now on.
Lee: Louisiana was all set to hold its primary on April 4th.
Kyle Ardoin: We're actually already in the election process-- absentee ballots had already been mailed out. We'd already received over 20,000-- back-- to the local registrar's.
Lee: As secretary of state, Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, is the chief election officer in Louisiana. I reached him by phone earlier this week.
Archival Recording: If you could just put this in your ear to record.
Lee: Ardoin told me up until a few days ago his top priority was to make this work, to ensure a free and fair election (BACKGROUND VOICE) for the people of Louisiana, while not putting the public's health at risk.
Ardoin: And our top process is first of all we're, how can we move forward with this April 4th election, provided that people were already in the process of voting. We would've had to close 32 polling locations across 16 parishes that would have some sort of contact with the vulnerable population, either literally inside a nursing home or a senior citizen center or a direct connection to it. So our thought process was, "Well, if we can't deliver a secure election to them how can we do it to the rest of the state?" Supplies were in limited quantities--
Lee: And there was another concern about the people who worked to ensure any election goes off without a hitch.
Ardoin: We also looked at all those who-- volunteer to serve as polling commissioners. And when we looked at the numbers of polling commissioners that are in the vulnerable population of 65 and older we realized we were putting them at risk without the necessary resources to do the basics within the CDC recommendations.
Lee: Was there an actual moment when you said to yourself, you know, "We have to do something and we have to do something now"?
Ardoin: Yes. It was, the moment was last week after a unified command group meeting, where we visited with the governor and we were trying to move forward. Then the next day I assembled my staff and we started going through the process. My commissioner of elections had already put together what she thought was a viable emergency plan.
And the further we went analyzing the plan and making changes to it the more complicated it became. And if it's becoming too complicated then it is not the right path because voting needs to be as simple and as easy and as quick as possible. And so that was my ah-ha moment. We can't put people at risk.
Lee: So on March 13th, a major change of plans. Louisiana postponed its primary by more than two months, moving it to June 20th. State law requires that the governor, in this case a Democrat, issue an executive order to make the postponement official. Tell me about your first conversation with Governor John Bel Edwards. And was there bipartisan agreement from the beginning about how you all should proceed?
Ardoin: I wasn't able to actually speak directly with the governor because he was, at the time, and I wasn't aware of it, dealing with public school closures and discussions about state government operations and all of that. So I spoke with his executive counsel, who I've worked with on numerous occasions.
And the very moment that I made that call and said, you know, "We really need to talk about postponing the election," there was obvious relief because they too were at that position of concern about the safety of our citizens. So I think we've made the right decision. We still will be able to provide democracy in the state of Louisiana. And I'm proud of us coming together in a bipartisan manner, worried more about the public health than politics.
Lee: This is the third time in recent state history that Louisiana has had to postpone an election. The same decision was made after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and again after Hurricane Rita in 2008. In both cases the state had months to prepare. The primary will now be after the June Nine deadline set by the Democratic National Committee. So Louisiana could potentially face penalty, losing half its delegates for violating the DNC timing rules.
Ardoin: Well, obviously we won't make that deadline. But I certainly hope that the Democratic National Committee will take into consideration what we're all going through across the nation and in the state. And that this was the only way we really could provide for the public health and still pull the election off prior to the Democratic National Convention, which will give them time to seat the delegates, should they waive their rules.
I think it's important to note that I brought the concern to the governor's office, and they said that they were willing to deal with that with their party. I did not consult either party chairman or the executive director of either party. I made this decision solely for the public health needs of our citizens and the folks that help us put on the elections.
Lee: Now it sounds like you are completely confident that you made the right decision. But was this actually, like, a difficult decision to make?
Ardoin: It absolutely was. You know, putting off democracy is not an easy thing to do. You know, this is not an easy thing to go through for anyone. I don't think that I've ever seen this, I don't, I know I haven't seen this sort of thing in my lifetime.
And I'm just 52 years old. I'm concerned for my fellow citizens. I'm concerned for my family and for my friends. I'm concerned for my employees. I'm concerned for everyone. And what I wanna say to folks is I read something yesterday that I thought was very poignant.
"Fear is the enemy of compassion." And we in Louisiana, through natural disasters, take care of our own. We reach out. We know to take care of our neighbors, check on our neighbors, and focus and supporting each other as a community. And I just wanna remind folks of that 'cause we're all, as Americans, in this together. And quite frankly, at this point in time, we're all in this together as a world. We need to focus in on how we can help others get through this as much as ourselves.
Lee: So what is all this like for voters? That's after the break.
Lee: One day after Louisiana postponed its primary, another announcement, three states over in Georgia, where the primary was supposed to be next week, March 24th.
Archival Recording: Georgia's primary, which was set to happen 10 days from now, has now been moved back two months, all due to fears of the Coronavirus.
Lee: In person early voting was already underway. A whole new electronic voting system had been rolled out statewide. And then over the weekend early voting was suspended. And the state moved its primary to May 19th. Just as Winfrey Young was deciding whether to vote early her polling place was closed.
Winfrey Young: I was absolutely excited about voting in this primary because one of the things that I preach to my sons, I have three, my husband and I have three sons, is the importance of the vote.
Lee: Winfrey is 50 years old. She lives in Atlanta. And she's a left-leaning independent
Young: That's the one thing that is the equalizer across the board. Everyone has one vote and you go stand in line and you get it done. It crosses all boundaries. And this is a very, very important election that's coming up.
Lee: And she told us that, while she understands the state's decision, she's worried about it too.
Young: I am worried about the turnout in Georgia for a number of reasons. I'm worried about apathy of the people, particularly the younger people. I'm worried about the seniors feeling like it would really and truly impact their health, especially if they have, they're compromised anyway.
I'm worried that people will just feel like this is some kind of conspiracy and won't go out to the polls to vote just because they're tired of all of this-- seemingly back and forth between government officials and the community. I mean, there are so many factors at play right now that could make people not vote that I just-- I just don't want to see the virus being used as an excuse.
Lee: For Winfrey, this whole ordeal has been a reminder that when she goes to vote in the general election she needs to think about who she wants leading the country during a crisis.
Young: This makes me look back at some of the things Biden has said, look back at some of the things Bernie has said, and say to myself, "Do they really have a handle on what's going on now and can they, would they, have a better handle on this than what's happening in this, the White House, right now"? We're looking for some stability right now. And I think that coming in November people are going to be voting not for a person but for stability.
Lee: The impact of the Coronavirus, when it comes to our healthcare, our economy, and our politics, won't be fully known for a while. The leading Democratic candidates have canceled in-person rallies and are hosting virtual campaign events. That means there won't be as much face time with the very voters they're hoping to court ahead of November. And President Trump, well, he'll be judged on his handling of this crisis. In regular briefings he's tried to assure the country.
Trump: We will significantly reduce the threat to our citizens, and we will ultimately and expeditiously defeat this virus. And we are responding with great speed and professionalism. Our team is the best anywhere in the world.
Lee: A new NBC News Wall Street Journal poll out this week proves that the start political divide that existed before the outbreak, well, it's still there. 81% of Republican voters approve of Trump's handling of the issue, while 84% of Democrats disapprove.
Independents, they're split. 43% approve, 52% don't. There's also this big question that's sort of looming over all of us. What happens come November? Could the election be postponed? The answer is probably not. The date for the general election is set by federal law.
And it's been the same since 1845. Changing the date would require Congress to pass a new law and the president would have to sign it. And even if that happened there'd likely be a challenge in the courts. Plus, the constitution requires that the new congress must be sworn in on January Third and the new president on January 20th. It would take a constitutional amendment to change that. All of this, highly unlikely. But then again, who would've thought American politics would be trying to outrun a virus.
Ardoin: I don't see that folks need to be looking at November right now.
Lee: In Louisiana secretary of state, Kyle Ardoin, is taking things one day at a time, which is the best most of us can do right now.
Ardoin: I think we need to focus in right now on everything that we can do to fight this. We're social creatures, and this is something odd for us to have to deal with. But I think certainly praying and utilizing our faith and support and still remembering that we're part of a community is an important part of this and then we can worry about politics later.
Into America is produced remotely this week by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. Stay safe, stay healthy and remember: we’re all in this together. We'll be back next Thursday.