April 16, 2020   6 mins

What if America held a presidential election and nobody turned up?

What, in other words, if the coronavirus is the icing on the voter suppression cake?

We tend to think of presidential elections as battles fought over character and policy, or, in the Trump era, bombast and insults and drama. It’s a performance and the campaign, however horribly unserious it might be, matters. But 2020 might not be about any of this. It might hinge, to an extent that few fully grasp, on a turnout reduced — suppressed — to a level unseen in recent decades.

The commentator Jonathan Chait is among those Left-wing Americans who have noticed and are sounding the alarm:

“It’s not clear,” he says, “If Democrats have fully grasped the gravity of what Trump and his party are attempting to do. The coronavirus poses a threat to elections in general, but a special threat to urban voters, who tend to face more crowded polling stations …… Republicans have calculated that the public-health threat of the virus will suppress the urban vote for them. All they have to do is block any changes to the election system [intended to offset the effects of the virus on voting habits] and allow nature to run its course.”

Voter suppression down the ages has pretty much been a deniable misdemeanour — “we just want to secure the integrity of the ballot for everyone”. Even in the bad old days down the racist south there was some nonsense mouthed about literacy being necessary in order for voters to understand the ballot.  It was about the sacred ballot – they pretended – not about the suppression. But this president has broken with such delicate dissimulation.

The strategy is blunter in the age of the Donald. The President even outlined it live on Fox News, following the Democrats’ series of suggestions to Congress about postal voting during this time of plague: “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”


The game has been given away. He wants, clearly and openly, to stop groups who vote Democratic from voting.

Mr Trump isn’t entirely opposed to postal voting: he likes it for the military and for older Americans. Two groups who – surprise surprise — back him. But for everyone else he insists that people should show up at the polls. Or not.

Even before the Coronavirus hit, the stage was set in many states for November 3rd — election day — to be a time to washing the car, tend the garden, gaze at the sky; anything other than voting. That’s because across all those states controlled by Republican Governors and legislatures the suppression efforts have come thick and fast in recent years.

Not all the initiatives to ‘reform’ voting law are deemed many Americans to be particularly offensive. To take a sample: in Oklahoma they are removing people who haven’t voted for eight years from the registers, which feels to many in that state like reasonable tidying. In Florida, they’re stopping convicted felons from voting until they’ve paid money they owe to victims of crime, which, if you are a victim of crime in Florida, probably seems fair enough. In other states you need proper ID, provided by a government agency.

But these measures mount up: in Mississippi the Democrats think fully 8% of the adult population is currently banned from the polls for one reason or other. Most of them will be Democratic party supporters: poorer people who go to jail more; black people living hand to mouth lives, without proper ID linked to a firm address; youngsters caught out by some special rule about registration.

And even if some of the rules are defensible, plenty struggle to pass any kind of honest electoral smell-test. Among the stinkiest is an effort going on at the moment in Texas to stop ‘straight ticket’ voting.  In all recent elections in the state, with one pull of the lever, you have been able to  back the Democrats, all of them, or the Republicans, all of them. Remember the ballots are long in many states so it’s convenient that you can, with one pull, elect your party choice of judges, school district bosses, rat catchers.

But, oh dear, mightn’t this lead to a lack of proper thought among electors about the people on the ballot? Well that’s what backers of the change claim, all innocent-faced, as they press for everyone to spend much longer actually voting for each individual candidate.

And the inevitable effect of banning the ‘straight ticket’? Queues. Queues which are already often long, would get longer still. Folk with pressing things to do, poorer people with two jobs, parents due to cook supper, would go home. And they’re generally Democrats. Texas is the biggest state the Republicans can count on in a presidential election: it’s their California, with 38 electoral votes and 7% of the electoral college in 2016. The Republican on the ticket has won every presidential contest since 1976.  But as Hispanic voting grows there are reasons to think Texas might be in play in 2020.

Not if the queues are long, though. Suppression works.

The story so far is a familiar one. It fits into a tradition that dates back to Jim Crow. Civil rights were granted grudgingly and slowly and plenty of black Americans think the battle for proper democratic freedom is still to be properly won. It’s reach is wider than the presidential race, too: comfortable America is none too keen on low-life America getting real power.

It is part of American life. As is the grisly fact that turnout in American presidential elections is low in any case – around 45% of voters don’t make it to the polling station. Lots of Americans don’t need to be suppressed: they’re just lazy or, more often, busy and tired and disillusioned. And Coronavirus will keep even more from the polls — won’t it?

Well in recent days, rather gloriously, the story has changed and changed in a way that cheers those who are confident in the ability of the USA to rise to challenges. You don’t have to be a Democratic party supporter (though it probably helps) to notice and salute what has just happened in still-chilly Wisconsin.

The Democrats tried to get their primary election – and the other polls due at the same time – postponed because of the Coronavirus. Republicans refused. The result was some measure of chaos.

As The New York Times put it, people were forced to choose between their health and their civic duty:

“In Milwaukee, just five of 180 planned polling places are open, leading to hours-long lines of masked and socially distanced voters. This comes as Milwaukee voters — an electorate that includes nearly all of the state’s black population — have lagged well behind suburban counterparts in returning absentee ballots.”

The chairman of the Democratic National Committee  Tom Perez called it “voter suppression on steroids, because it was putting people’s lives in danger”.

But here is the thing.  Americans can be meretricious and fickle and frankly barmy. They can be unthinking about bigger pictures. They can be ignorant about the world. But they are also deeply serious. America has a spine of purpose. People who misunderstand the place concentrate on the froth and the nonsense, the eating competitions and the trashy TV.

But in Wisconsin, faced with what many people saw as a deliberate effort to deprive them of their rights, they queued, in masks, to protect those rights. More than a million votes were cast in person or in postal ballots. Not as many as usual but still a decent number. And enough to make a difference. A judge Mr Trump backed on the Wisconsin Supreme Court was thrown out. It felt to many like a victory for democracy in a state that will be a key battleground in 2020.

Of course, it may well be the case that Donald Trump wins in November because in Wisconsin and other crucial swing states more voters are enthusiastic about him than about the challenger Joe Biden. He managed, in 2016, to bring people to the polls who had not voted often before, if at all. He is not just about suppression; he has given voice to people who felt themselves to be voiceless.

And Mr Biden, while he is regarded with affection by many Democrats, makes few spines tingle.  When the Fox News host Tucker Carlson asks of Mr Biden, “could he find his car in a three tiered parking garage?” many Democrats shift uneasily in their seats.

So there is still a chance it could be a conventional election. But if the Coronavirus calamity carries on, 2020 could turn out to be an election about what American democracy really is. Will people do their duty in spite of the dangers, as large numbers did in Wisconsin?

In their revolution, in their civil war, in their travails of the 20th century, plenty of Americans died for the ideal of America.

Will they do so again this November?

Justin Webb was the BBC’s North America Editor and presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four.