Across the country, citizens were ordered to hunker in their homes to avoid catching a deadly virus even as some people thought it was nothing worse than a seasonal cold. In the midst of fear and sickness, politicians had to decide how to hold scheduled elections, and the global pandemic was subject to political spin.
The year was 1918 when a deadly flu outbreak gripped the nation, infecting about a third of the world’s population and killing 675,000 people in the United States alone.
That crisis, which was known as the Spanish flu, took place in a completely different time technologically and politically. But the reaction then, where local governments took charge and made decisions on how to proceed with voting, offer some guidance for the situation today as the pandemic arrives in a federal election year.
In the 1918 election — midterm contests, where President Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic Party was fighting to keep control of Congress — keeping polling places open was a patchwork of decisions by local officials.
“Everything became this kind of wheeler-dealer hustle,” said Kristin Watkins, an expert in pandemics and director of grants at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs whose studies involved reviewing 1918 elections.
Throughout the nation’s history, wars, natural disasters and even terrorist attacks have disrupted campaigns. This crisis seems different. The enemy is invisible and comes as the country is politically divided, with splits that are starting to seep into government’s — and individuals’ — responses.