Battle against coronavirus poses threat to our democratic institutions

By Mindy Romero, Special to CalMatters

As states and the federal government wage a battle against the spread of the coronavirus, we also face a real threat to our democratic institutions. 

As we come together in this time of crisis, we also have a rare opportunity to improve the function of our democracy, from national elections to local decision making bodies, in order to better meet its promise to serve all Americans.  

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an emergency executive order that suspends application of certain provisions of the state’s laws involving open meetings by allowing local government agencies to hold meetings by phone and online without public access to the physical meeting site. We are seeing actions like this across the country, as state and local legislative bodies are postponing or modifying meetings to eliminate in-person public access.

While we must prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we must also demand that public officials do everything in their power to maximize the ability of the public to continue observing and participating in governmental decision-making.

This includes providing effective public notice of how and when the public can participate in rescheduled meetings, as well as allowing people to testify from remote locations at public hearings. And we must track these mitigations in real time to identify how they are impacting levels of public participation. 

Decision-making by local legislative bodies should also be limited to decisions on only items that are essential services, such as budgets and public health measures. Decisions made outside of the public view, and without meaningful public comment is a recipe for, at best, ill-informed policy and, at worst, malfeasance. 

Transparency and inclusion protect everyone: the public, as well as public servants trying to do the right thing by their constituents even when they may be pressured to do something else. We must protect ourselves against those who might use this emergency for their own political and economic ends.

To date, several states have postponed their primary elections, while across the country election officials are scrambling to plan for the very real possibility that the coronavirus will impact their ability to hold in-person voting in November. On top of all of this, they face questions about whether the General Election itself will happen on time.  

First, only by an act of Congress can the General Election date be changed, and the calendar window for such a delay is very limited. If for any reason the election is not held, the 20th Amendment dictates that the current president and vice president cannot stay in office past their four-year terms, thus triggering the rules of succession. 

Second, the need to protect public health has fueled the call for states to relax restrictions around voting by mail and ensure all U.S. voters have the option to vote by mail in November. However, at the same time, research by USC’s California Civic Engagement Project has shown that also maintaining an accessible in-person voting option in some form will be critical to ensuring the voters who want to or need to vote in person will not be disenfranchised.  

The reality is that decisions state election officials make around access to voting during this crisis may impact General Election turnout, meaning fewer Americans could have a voice in selecting who leads state and national crisis-response efforts past November. In California, election leaders and voter advocacy groups are coming together to discuss nuanced approaches to serving the diverse needs of the state’s voters.

Let’s seize this moment to protect our democratic institutions and improve them going forward.  In any given election, including when voter turnout is high, those who vote are not demographically representative of our population, and they don’t often hold the same policy preferences of non-voters.  Many of the biggest decisions continually shaping our communities are made during public meetings. Too few people participate and those who do typically don’t represent the greater community.

Sociologists tell us that any type of institutional change in a society, including improvements in our democratic institutions, typically occurs slowly. It is moments of great social disruption that often bring about significant change in our institutions – positive or negative. 

This crisis will undoubtedly bring shifts in how our democracy functions.  As we rebuild from the devastating impact of the coronavirus, we must seek ways to purposely build better versions of our democratic institutions where participation is high, public trust is cultivated and all groups are meaningfully incorporated into the decision making process.

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Mindy Romero is a political sociologist and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, [email protected].  

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