Editorial: Democracy and Covid-19
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Editorial

Editorial: Democracy and Covid-19

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Election judge Al Kruse wears gloves to protect himself against coronavirus while passing out voting stickers to voters participating in the Illinois Primary at American Legion in Reynolds, Tuesday March 17, 2020.

Illinois voters went to the polls last Tuesday in noticeably smaller numbers than four years ago.

The most recent figures we’ve seen say that, statewide, 1.5 million people turned out, down from 2 million four years ago.

Those figures are echoed locally. In Rock Island County, turnout hit 24 percent of registered voters, significantly lower than the 35 percent mark in 2016.

Each election is different, so some aren't pointing to fears over the COVID-19 pandemic as the primary reason for the slump. But it’s impossible to ignore it, either.

People are scared, rightfully so, and so many stayed home.

If the Chicago Board of Elections had its way, there would have been no primary. The board asked Gov. J.B. Pritzker to call it off. He refused, saying he didn’t have the authority – and that it would result in mass confusion.

We hope this was the right decision. It avoided yet another complication in what has become an avalanche of them dealing with the coronavirus threat. At the same time, we know the risks of continuing life as normal, of failing to isolate ourselves.

We are told that locally poll workers took extra precautions to make sure voting equipment was clean, and that risks were minimized. There’s no real way to know whether these steps worked. As with a lot of this, we are working without perfect knowledge.

In Ohio, meanwhile, the governor there took a different route, calling off the state's primary.

Here in the Quad-Cities, Iowans won’t go to the polls for another 2 1/2 months, and who knows what the situation will be then. With all the daily changes, 10 weeks seems like an eternity. But it is not.

We don’t know how long the isolation measures we’ve all taken will remain in place. But it seems as if it will likely go beyond the April 16 date in the governor’s emergency order. This may stretch out for months.

We believe it is important, to the extent possible, to keep the primary on schedule. The health and safety of Iowans and all Americans come first. But the healthy functioning of our economy, and our democracy, are vital to calming our frayed nerves and upholding confidence.

If the need for social isolation continues into June, there should be steps taken to make sure that polling places are kept clean and that voters can keep their distance in order to avoid further spreading the coronavirus.

We also must take a hard look at expanding vote by mail, or absentee, options.

Republicans have taken steps in recent years to curb this practice, with claims that it wants to maintain ballot security. We've tended not to buy that excuse, but given the current crisis, Republicans and Democrats need to explore expansion of absentee balloting should isolation measures be in place for longer than we'd like.

Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz sought permission last week from the county board to mail absentee ballot requests to all registered voters in the county. The board rejected the plan, with two Democrats voting for it and three Republicans voting against it.

We believe Moritz has the right impulse, but we also understand board members who said they want, in the short term, to wait for guidance from the secretary of state.

This is a discussion that needs to happen across the state. It's never too early to think ahead.

Voting by mail has been shown to work in other states. And at a time when voting in person may endanger our collective health, the preservation of democracy means being willing to innovate.

Let’s hope the June primary won't need extraordinary measures. But while we believe the priority needs to be on preserving public safety first, then acting to make sure our precarious economy can withstand this crisis, there also should be a concurrent bi-partisan effort to make sure we are able to hold a primary on the appointed date.

Who knows, pulling off the June primary might even make the rest of the country forget about the botched caucuses.

We have heard concerns recently about the impact the coronavirus could have on the fall general election. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, worried it might be delayed. That concern may seem premature, but it is never too soon to plan ahead.

Iowa’s primary may well be the place where we make sure the state is ready for whatever happens this fall.

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