Commentary: Imagine holding the US elections during a COVID-19 outbreak

Commentary: Imagine holding the US elections during a COVID-19 outbreak

It will be tough to replicate the Singapore model of containing the virus in the US, says Steven R Okun and Thurgood Marshall Jr.

At rallies, the US president repeatedly encourages the crowd to boo and heckle journalists covering
US President Donald Trump a a rally. (Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb)

SINGAPORE: The World Health Organisation said Singapore’s efforts in tackling cases of COVID-19 are a model for other countries to follow.

In the midst of this year’s Presidential campaign, it’s hard to imagine the US having the will or the way to do what Singapore has done.

If the United States were to put into place the same restrictions as has Singapore to contain the community spread of the virus, the US presidential campaign will be greatly impacted.

With any luck, virus fears will be well behind us by the time Americans cast their votes in November.

But what if the US were to be in a pandemic during the campaign?

SINGAPORE’S STEPS TO LIMIT THE SPREAD

To contain the spread of COVID-19, Singapore’s Ministry of Health recommends that organisers cancel or defer non-essential large-scale events.

Second, the Government issues strict Stay-Home Notices which means travellers returning from places with high numbers of infections, which includes mainland China, northern Italy, South Korea and Iran currently are forced to remain at their place of residence at all times for 14 days.

Third, temperature screenings are imperative. This has become a basic implementation and requirement at all office buildings, schools, and large housing complexes on the island. For example, if a United World College of Southeast Asia student’s temperature is too high (37.5 degrees Celsius), they cannot go to school that day.

Fourth, in addition to temperature checks for each student, most schools ban non-students from entering the premises to limit the potential for an outbreak there.

THE SINGAPORE MODEL WOULD GREATLY IMPACT THE US CAMPAIGN

What would happen if Singapore’s system were implemented in the midst of a US presidential campaign?

Imagine US President Donald Trump being told he could not hold any more rallies.

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Or a person coming to vote in one of the Democratic primaries only to be turned away if their temperature was above the allowable limit. Would that person not be allowed to vote? One can only imagine the arguments that would ensue – especially if it were a Bernie Sanders’ supporter.

What if someone is placed under a quarantine notice and only finds out just before the election? Would they still be allowed to vote?

COVID-19 AND SUPER TUESDAY

Super Tuesday, the day the largest number of states in the US hold their presidential primary elections, held on Mar 3, offered the first opportunity to see how the American voting process might be affected by the novel coronavirus.

Indeed, there was record turnout in many locations and as such presumably had no impact.

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at his Super Tuesda
Supporters of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders cheer at his Super Tuesday election night rally in Essex Junction, Vermont, U.S., March 3, 2020.  (Photo: REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs)

In Virginia, more than 1.3 million people voted in 2020 compared to 780,000 people in 2016.

Voter turnout in Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, reached its highest levels since 2008.

Elsewhere in Texas, some poll workers did not show up because of fears of COVID-19 according to the Travis County clerk’s office.

What if poll workers not showing-up on election day becomes more the norm?

And what happens if people go to the polls but are concerned that the voting machines may be contaminated with the virus?

In Singapore, some have stopped touching elevator buttons with their fingers and instead use their elbows.

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But can you do that in a voting booth with a touch screen?

As we progress through the 2020 election calendar, voters will gain a better sense of the level of risk, if any, and election administrators will have more time and experience to consider possible solutions and alternatives.

NO PLAYBOOK EXISTS

Although we have some experience as a guide, there is no clear playbook yet on how to proceed.  There is also no clear sense yet on what the state of play will be with the virus when national election voting occurs in November.

But election administrators will need to consider a range of alternatives, many of which require substantial lead time to implement.

Election administrators have always maintained emergency preparedness and contingency plans for hurricanes and other emergencies and those plans are already being adjusted to consider this new threat. By the same token, many of our systems are underfunded and outdated.

Israel recently completed a nationwide election this week as global coronavirus concerns first appeared. In a stark departure from their standard practice of voting alongside neighbours in their communities, Israel opted for a limited number of pop-up polling places staffed with paramedics and election officials clad in masks and gloves specifically for quarantined Israeli voters.

These voters were advised to don masks and gloves and to place double-sealed envelopes containing their ballots into plastic bags before inserting them into ballot boxes.

Israeli election monitors wearing masks and gloves count votes cast by Israelis in home-quarantine
Israeli election monitors wearing masks and gloves count votes cast by Israelis in home-quarantine over coronavirus concerns following Israel's national election, in Shoham, Israel March 4, 2020. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Other measures bearing consideration will be the various methods of casting votes that are alternatives to in-person voting. Those include absentee voting, early voting, vote-by-mail and online voting. Each carries certain benefits, but each has its flaws.

Moreover, as we have recently seen with the Iowa Caucus process where a new vote counting app utterly failed, reliance on new processes without full vetting can be disastrous.

DISINFORMATION EVEN MORE WEAPONISED BY COVID-19

Singapore’s legal powers to stop the spread of disinformation comes from the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) passed last year.

POFMA seeks to prevent the electronic communication of falsehoods and to safeguard against the use of online platforms such as Facebook for the communication of such falsehoods.

If the Government finds such instances on the Internet, it can order it to be taken down or for a correction to be run alongside the false statement.

Singapore has issued multiple examples of disinformation related to the coronavirus to be corrected, including that Singapore is running out of masks and that Singapore has been unable to trace the sources of infection for the coronaviruses here.

The US has no such system.

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What if a bad actor made up a COVID-19 scare to keep people away from attending a campaign rally for Joe Biden? Or if someone tweeted that there had been a case of a coronavirus at the location of one of President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rallies.

People would stay away, thereby tilting the election toward one party. Is the US prepared for that?

TRANSPARENCY AND COMPETENCE THE MODEL TO FOLLOW

As the coronavirus began to hit Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation.

Lee Hsien Loong on virus
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking on the novel coronavirus. (Screengrab: MCI) 

He said, “fear can do more harm than the virus itself” and that the initial steps being taken by the Government would change if the virus became widespread, adding the Government would keep its people “informed every step of the way.”

Almost overnight, the panic shopping and unnecessary wearing of masks stopped.

This is the model the US government should be following: A science-based approach to containing the virus, putting in whatever restrictions are necessary to limit the spread coupled with open and transparent communication to the public.

Let’s see if the US is capable to do so, especially in an election year.

Hopefully we won’t have to find out.

Steven R Okun and Thurgood Marshall Jr served in the Clinton administration as Deputy General Counsel at the Department of Transportation and White House Cabinet Secretary, respectively. Mr Okun serves as senior adviser for global strategic consultancy McLarty Associates in Singapore. Mr Marshall practices law in Washington. The views are their own.

Source: CNA/sl

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