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Story by Andrea Grant
Photography by Michael J. Clark
It hits in waves without warning.
As I go about my “new normal” of Zoom check-ins with colleagues and socially distanced rambles with my toddler, out of nowhere come sudden bursts of crippling anxiety for the future of our country. And I know I’m not alone.
David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, has been conducting national and state polls to measure fear about voter safety, confidence in the government response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the overall direction of the country. He says just looking at the data gives him a “jolt.”
“You can almost feel the anxiety of the respondents in the numbers because people are so concerned about not only their health but also the political future,” says Paleologos.
When you see how the pandemic is impacting politics as usual, it’s clear that America has some preexisting conditions. Hyper-polarization. Gridlock. Disenfranchisement, disinformation, and distrust. These comorbidities seem to have worsened over the years, weakening our civic unity to a critical degree even before the public health and economic devastation of the coronavirus threatened to wreak havoc on our body politic.
Although there is a widespread perception that American democracy is resilient, what if everything changed in an instant? Could almost 250 years of electoral and legislative processes be upended by a global health crisis and then rebuilt in a matter of months?
At Suffolk I regularly talk with faculty, students, and alumni who study and work in politics. I usually meet them during moments of triumph and write about their accomplishments. Now we discuss the sheer weight and volume of the monumental tasks they face as they adapt to, predict, and shape our political future. Already, politics in the pandemic have undergone massive upheaval. The crisis is altering how campaigns and elections are conducted, how we engage in the political process, how we share information, and even how we vote.
As the pandemic continues in the coming months and as we emerge later, what will our democracy look like?
As many people become accustomed to conducting their lives from the confines of their own homes, political campaign and media strategist Roger Fisk, BA ’94, MSP ’00, wonders if they will return to the town square when the pandemic is over.
Fisk is widely credited with campaign strategies that led President Barack Obama to electoral victories in 2008 and 2012. He understands the power of social and digital media and used it masterfully to help Obama connect with a wider, younger, and more diverse audience. But even Fisk sees online and mobile tools as mere enhancements to a campaign—the core comes from those “person-to-person, door-to-door interactions” that provide opportunities to share perspectives, change minds, and build community bonds.
The pandemic, he says, is changing our relationships with our neighbors and with our communities. “There are fewer opportunities for respectful disagreement and possibly even persuasion,” he says. “Maybe the person that you would have bumped into on the way out of that town meeting could have explained something to you in a way that you wouldn’t have stumbled on just online, and you could have walked out of there significantly different than you walked in.”
When I first met Clara Sandrin, BS/MS ’18, two years ago she had just helped a classmate win a Brockton, Massachusetts, City Council seat using grassroots tactics they’d learned in Suffolk’s Campaign Lab program and through a course called Ready, Set, Run. They went door to door canvassing, held meet-and-greets, and talked to voters at countless community events. Those personal interactions earned and energized supporters and ultimately helped her classmate win the race.
By late spring of this year Sandrin was stationary in South Carolina, a campaign manager for a congressional challenger cut off from any face-to-face contact with the public. She had a trunk full of printed campaign literature but no in-person events or battalion of volunteers to distribute it.
All candidates are contending with the limitations of the pandemic, but they’re hitting newcomers especially hard, says Setti Warren JD ’07, the former mayor of Newton, Massachusetts, who now serves as the executive director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
“When I ran for mayor the first time, my campaign and I knocked on 10,000 doors and met people,” Warren said at a Ford Hall Forum as part of a Suffolk University spring virtual event. “People still come up to me today and say, ‘I voted for you because you came to my door.’ And I won my election by 469 votes. I don’t know that I would have been able to win that race if I couldn’t have gone physically out to campaign at the local level.”
Incumbents typically have greater name recognition, fundraising leverage, and access to constituents—advantages in any election year, but potentially insurmountable for challengers now.
In response to the physical limitations precluding traditional campaign events and canvassing, candidates have upped their use of digital communications, connecting with their audiences through platforms like Facebook Live or Zoom town halls. But Sandrin points out that those online communications and conversations may exclude segments of the population, including some people with low incomes and others who may be less digitally connected.
Before the pandemic, President Donald Trump used large in-person rallies to welcome all kinds of supporters and then mined their information to build powerful databases used in digital campaigning.
This year his campaign has struggled to hold large-scale events, hampered by pandemic fears, local public health regulations, and fake registrations that make data collection less useful. But the Trump campaign has lost more than data that fed the campaign machine, says Suffolk Political Science & Legal Studies Professor Ken Cosgrove.
“Rallies provide ‘solidarity benefits’ by energizing supporters. Attendees have a positive experience; they feel like part of a group; and they buy merchandise, which increases viral marketing,” said Cosgrove, who studies media use and marketing in politics. “Virtual rallies are like sporting events without fans in the seats—it’s better than nothing, but it’s not the same experience.”
For candidates across the country this fall, in-person interactions, or the lack thereof, could make all the difference.
This summer, more than 140 Suffolk University students got a jumpstart on their academic year by diving into the COVID-19 pandemic’s enormous implications on democracy and politics through an innovative and free online course. The nine-week Politics in the Time of Global Pandemic virtual series connected students—many of them just starting their Suffolk careers—not only with each other but with experts, scholars, and public policy leaders from around the country. They shared explorations of the humanitarian crisis caused by the pandemic, its impacts on social justice, political partisanship, governing, elections, information wars, and more.
The University’s Political Science and Legal Studies Department teamed up with Suffolk’s Ford Hall Forum and the WGBH Forum Network to bring the online lecture series to the outside world. WGBH produced the moderated conversations, where students posed questions to experts in immigration law, national security, and voter protection. They heard from legislative and political leaders, scholars, and journalists, including Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins; political scientist Sarah Binder, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution; and Dara Lind, who covers immigration policy for ProPublica.
Political Science Department Chair Rachael Cobb describes the course as “super dynamic,” in that it brought the discussion beyond the classroom and to the broader public through a shared experience. Hundreds logged in to view the discussions.
“Because we were talking about things happening right at that very moment with people working on those things right at that very moment, we were all feeling the urgency of now,” Cobb says. New students immediately got ideas about possible courses of study or internships before their first semester had officially even begun. “I think we have proven that in an online setting you can build community, engage ideas, and make people feel something that is bigger than themselves, even when we are all in our living and dining rooms,” Cobb says.
As comedian George Carlin wisely said, “If you don’t vote, you lose your right to complain.”
If you’re not satisfied by the government response to the pandemic—and a national Suffolk poll released in May found that 50% of people think the federal government is not doing enough to help—or with the way your state or local elected officials are representing you on other issues, you have a chance to have your say on Tuesday, November 3.
But will it be safe?
If the spring’s primaries were a dress rehearsal for the nation’s pandemic electoral process, a fiasco could be in store for opening night.
Wisconsin was the first act.
The state’s chaotic primary in April took place at the height of nationwide “safer at home” initiatives and after an 11th-hour legal battle and Supreme Court ruling overturned the governor’s attempts to postpone the election or extend absentee voting.
Crowds of voters in face masks waited in long lines outside Wisconsin polling stations. Warren of the Shorenstein Center calls the Wisconsin precedent “really, really troubling” for both voter participation and safety, though studies are mixed as to whether there was a meaningful increase in COVID-19 cases.
“They didn’t have enough volunteers and staff, so they had to eliminate locations for voting, which meant they had huge numbers of people waiting in line for hours,” says Warren. “Talk about voter disenfranchisement. And the communities where there were long lines are underserved communities.”
In unprecedented times people come together. We’ve been able to find compromise on pretty complicated issues so far.”
The Wisconsin primary debacle, like the pandemic itself, exposed the underlying conditions that threaten to tear our country apart, including partisan bickering, confusion, fear, misinformation, and inequality. The latter is particularly unsettling.
Voter disenfranchisement is as grave a threat to our country as the pandemic. Every person deterred from casting a ballot is a partner lost in our shared democracy and the rebuilding of our damaged institutions.
The Wisconsin primary was not an isolated event. A similar scene played out across Georgia in June, leaving election officials there calling for investigations into long lines and delays.
To keep polling places open we need, among other things, a new generation of well-trained helpers.
“What we’re up against right now is a poll worker base that is dramatically older than the rest of the population, and those people are not going to want to work on Election Day,” says Suffolk Professor Rachael Cobb, Political Science and Legal Studies chair, who is racing against the clock to make sure polling places are ready.
Building on the efforts of the University Pollworkers Project she started in 2006 to recruit and train students to serve at polls, Cobb is designing an academic course to prepare student poll workers and working with municipal election officials to design new poll worker training materials that address social distancing and disinfection practices.
Vote-by-mail seems like another obvious solution. It isn’t a panacea—some voters need assistance or simply prefer to vote in person, and there are costs for printing and postage to consider—but Cobb believes it might be the best way to ensure a free and fair 2020 election.
Red, blue, and purple states, including Colorado, Utah, Washington, and Hawaii, conduct statewide elections by mail. Others are looking to expand vote-by-mail capacity during the pandemic.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker recently signed into law a voting reform package that expands vote-by-mail and lengthens early in-person voting periods. The new law reflects widespread support in Massachusetts—74% of state residents said they would favor conducting the September primary and the November general election by mail according to a spring Suffolk poll.
While opponents raise the possibility of voter fraud as a downside, evidence from states that have conducted vote-by-mail elections does not support those fears, says Cobb. “There have been a statistically insignificant number of instances of fraud to date, and safeguards in place mean when they do happen, they are caught.”
The potential benefits, however, are real, according to Cobb and others. Instead of seeing an increase in voter disenfranchisement due to the pandemic, vote-by-mail could be an opportunity to engage more voters. A Suffolk University poll shows 65% of Americans are in favor of this approach.
Mail-in voting supports access to the democratic process for older members of the population who may be particularly vulnerable right now because of the pandemic. And an expansion of mail-in balloting could help bring more “low-propensity” voters like millennials into the process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Voter turnout data from states such as Utah show higher rates of participation among younger people and people of color in counties with mail-in voting.
Warren adds that Americans need to radically rethink the way we do elections, noting that both parties have won with vote-by-mail in states that have used the method for years.
“As romantic as it is to get your cup of coffee and go down to a polling place on a cold Tuesday in November, it’s not the best way to run elections, and we can do better,” he says.
As Amercians grapple with the logistics of the pandemic, state and local politics never have seemed more critical.
Governors have been the ones coordinating closures, testing, and tracing, and creating other pandemic management programs. Public health guidance and enforcement often are delegated to individual municipalities.
Suffolk Public Administration Professor Brendan Burke says he’s encouraged by the way many governors have stepped up and in some cases banded together across party lines to negotiate contracts for essential supplies and align reopening strategies in the absence of a more-coordinated federal response.
Many state legislators and municipal leaders have maintained a vitally important role—connecting constituents to accurate scientific and policy information as well as resources to combat housing, food, and economic insecurity.
Massachusetts State Senator Brendan Crighton, MPA ’09, knows that some view Lynn, Massachusetts, the largest city in his district, as an “underdog” contending with economic and social challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. Now more than ever, Lynn residents, many of whom are essential workers, need public servants who can work together to protect their interests as the country moves into post-pandemic life.
“In unprecedented times people come together. We’ve been able to find compromise on pretty complicated issues so far,” he says. Crighton and colleagues on both sides of the aisle worked together alongside community advocates to expand housing protections and unemployment assistance during the pandemic. They streamlined debates and processes that normally take years into targeted actions and reached consensus in weeks.
When temperatures are running high, it’s often local officials who have the power to break the fever.
Orange County, California, a historically conservative pocket in a liberal state, became a political battleground in early May when Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom singled out its beaches for closure after images of crowds seemingly disregarding social distancing restrictions exploded in the media.
Megan Dutra, BS ’13, is a policy adviser to Republican Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett. Dutra says that when the beach closure threatened to turn a public safety issue into a political one, Bartlett worked with the governor’s office on a compromise solution—lowering the rhetorical temperature and opening the beaches again for activities like surfing and running that don’t encourage stationary groups.
It’s up to our elected officials to have these tough conversations and make concessions, to risk their ideological “purity” in pursuit of solutions. It’s a concept Suffolk Public Administration Professor Marc Holzer calls a “public service orientation.”
At a time when some in power seem to care more about protecting their careers than serving their constituents, we can still find examples of dedication to the common good all around us. Holzer points to a shift in attitudes toward and from essential workers: “Health care workers, but also people in the private sector like delivery drivers and grocery store workers, are redefining themselves in terms of a broader purpose.”
Perhaps this new sense of purpose is exactly what we need to reignite interest in civic participation.
Virtual rallies are like sporting events without fans in the seats—it’s better than nothing, but it’s not the same experience.”
What if the pandemic is not an isolating force, but an opportunity for increased civic engagement? As rumors of an impending state shutdown swirled mid-March, Jessica Finocchiaro, MS/MPA ’13, a Methuen, Massachusetts, city councilor, drafted emergency resolutions to allow the council to continue its work remotely and to provide more opportunities for residents to be involved via videoconferencing, email, and telephone as public meetings moved online.
“We want to make sure we’re getting the public feedback that we need during this difficult time and being as transparent as possible,” she says, noting that creating more options for remote public participation actually has made local government more accessible for some residents.
In South Carolina, Sandrin and her candidate paused fundraising and campaigning in March and focused on getting people the information they need to be safe. Since volunteers cannot knock on doors to raise awareness, they started a phone bank to check in on seniors instead. What might have been policy conversations a few months ago are now personal as they make sure residents have groceries, services, and in some cases just simple human contact.
“Now when we talk to residents, the conversation is less, ‘Hey, who are you voting for in November?’ and more, ‘This is a weird time. Are you doing OK?’” says Sandrin.
The future, at least for a while, almost certainly holds fewer chaotic in-person spectacles like the Iowa caucuses. Maybe it looks more like small groups of friends sipping cocktails on Zoom while watching a town hall meeting or neighbors debating local zoning ordinances on NextDoor. Perhaps in some ways we’ll never go back.
Safeguarding the election and mending our civic life will take bipartisan cooperation, but maybe that’s not as impossible as it might seem to those of us who have been spending more time on Twitter than in the town square.
Fisk says that “ultimately, for all the noise that’s made by the extremes, American civic life is largely determined by folks between the 40-yard lines that are either center left or center right.”
Right now, it is literally the folks between the 40-yard lines who are giving us hope.
Public Administration Professor Burke says his town once held a public forum on its high school football field to accommodate all the residents who wanted to weigh in on a particularly important issue. Recently, we’ve seen examples of cities and towns across the country using the same strategy. The images of neighbors in lawn chairs, waving to each other from their 6-foot chalk circles as they come together in common cause, show the best of what a participatory democracy can be, even in the most challenging times.
It’s comforting to remember that at its most basic level our democracy is made up of our neighbors. They deliver our mail, teach our children, and care for our loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes. They give their time to serve on local committees and volunteer at food pantries. Many are struggling, and many more are stepping up to help. Each one deserves to have their voice heard and their vote cast—safely.
As I’ve talked with more than a dozen Suffolk alumni, students, and faculty experts one phrase has come up in every single conversation: “We’re all in this together.”
I hope that resolve is what remains to drive us forward after this moment of crisis (that seems like decades) finally passes.
“The pandemic got us to slow down, and that gave us time to think about the value of family, community, the environment. Since then we’ve been immersed in an urgent conversation and deep soul-searching on racism in America. Time will tell if this moment of reckoning on both issues will lead to lasting change, but I think there’s going to be a shift.”
“The pandemic has uncovered that we have a vast system of inequity in this country. We were able to mobilize quickly to provide laptops to kids, food to families, but why couldn’t we do that absent the pandemic? We need to strengthen our communities because you never know when another storm is approaching.”
“The realization that many jobs can be done remotely should open paths to better employment for people with disabilities who need accommodations. Remote, project-based internship programs could also be a game changer for students who don’t have the ability to do a traditional internship for a variety of reasons: geographic location, time/work constraints, and the lack of resources to take an unpaid internship.”
“The best way to effect change is to be a part of it. That’s why I got involved in government. I hope people get involved, stay involved, and assert their opinions using the new tools and platforms that have been adopted during the pandemic.”