June 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

COVID’s Lasting Political Impact

COVID-19 has radically reshaped how we approach nearly all aspects of day-to-day life. Elections and the campaigns that accompany them have likewise been heavily impacted over the course of this year, and we have witnessed fundamental changes that will remain beyond our current 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 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 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 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, 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 span of time, the switch to vote by mail appears to have largely been successful. Going forward, improvements can be made 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 U.S. to prepare for that eventuality.

We should support any effort that encourages greater voter participation while keeping our elections safe and free from fraud or interference. Electronic voting is certainly a possibility on the near horizon. Digital voter registration and ballot tracking systems have already 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 can certainly build the requisite infrastructure to support its proper usage.

Increased early voting —by mail or in person—has shifted the focus from Election Day to the days and weeks leading up to it. The redistribution of funds and manpower from typical massive Election Day GOTV 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 up front 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 these new election trends, but online engagement has already proven to be a defining factor. As more people consume digital content as their norm, 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.

Called to task for allowing alleged interference 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 to head off last-minute attacks. Trump stayed his course, succeeding in energizing his base and 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. Too many people got sick or lost loved ones to this disease for that tactic to come out in his favor, and it was ultimately the foremost issue facing our nation in 2020.

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 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.

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.

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 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. 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 has already shown itself to have a resounding impact at the foremost 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.


Michael Wildes is the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey, and the author of “Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Golden Door.” He is a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor of immigration law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

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