The first "masked ballot" in America's history

  • 15 April 2020
  • NormanL

A number of state and local governments have delayed primary elections out of concerns for voter safety during the current epidemic. While such precautionary measures may seem alien, the nation ha conducted its political business (including voting) in times or war, economic collapse, and yes, epidemic. As Geoff Skelley writes, the U.S. managed to conduct the mid-term congressional elections during the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak. There were deep concerns about public health. But the wheels of democracy kept turning:

In response to this devastating disease, public health officials tried to limit its spread, but those mitigation policies affected political campaigns. Marian Moser Jones, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who studies the influenza pandemic, pointed to bans on public gatherings, which we’re seeing now too. “[Y]ou couldn’t have the usual election speeches, which were then even more important because you didn’t have television or radio,” Jones said. “[Candidates] had to actually campaign via newspaper editorials and mailings.”

This was particularly true out west, where the pandemic’s severity peaked in the days before the election. Even election night changed: There was a ban on the display of election returns on large boards outside of newspaper offices so that crowds wouldn’t gather to watch results come in, Jones told me. And in Los Angeles, “election officers locked themselves in each voting booth to count the votes and to prevent flu transmission.”

The Spanish flu also likely contributed to lower turnout on Election Day. About 40 percent of the voting-eligible population cast ballots in the 1918 midterm election, down sharply from the 50 to 52 percent that voted in the previous two midterms.

Concerns about the Spanish flu affected voters -- but despite the disease's lethality, it did not stop the general election in 1918:

Civic pride and patriotism were high during World War I, as war bond campaigns and propaganda from the Committee on Public Information encouraged Americans to do their part to support the war effort. And newspapers encouraged citizens to go to the polls despite the Spanish flu with headlines like “Every Loyal Californian Will Cast Vote At Election Today” in the Los Angeles Times. There also wasn’t a national debate over whether the results were legitimate, even though turnout was lower, and in some parts of the country, officials claimed influenza may have affected the results in congressional and local elections.

We encourage you to read the entire piece to see how the nation's civic life has weathered all manner of crises...and barring the worst, will do so again this November.