By Blake Kiernan
“The only thing that matters more than our health and safety is the freedom to choose how we are governed.”
The above sentiment is expressed in Ken Harbaugh’s article, “The Vote Must Go On." His piece was published in last March’s Atlantic magazine and reposted on the National Constitution Center’s website, sparking a necessary conversation about voting and elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you turn on the news or look online, it certainly doesn’t feel like an election year. Yes, we should be talking about Coronavirus — but that doesn't mean we should stop talking about everything else.
In his article, Harbaugh delves into Governor Mike DeWine’s decision to delay Ohio’s primary elections due to rising rates of COVID-19. He juxtaposes our current political reality with historical decisions past Presidents have made — often against constitutional norms — in light of dire and uncertain times, and he uses this analysis to further his case for ousting President Trump from office this Fall. The author is a Democrat and 2018 candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. I do not applaud him for using these trying times to further what I consider to be a partisan political agenda. But what I do appreciate about Harbaugh’s argument is the much deeper, more elusive narrative in which he scratches the surface of a defining facet of American history. In the author’s own words, “When public safety conflicts with fundamental rights, which one wins?”
The date for electing a President was officially established in 1792. And yes, a lot has changed since George Washington’s re-election, but every election since has been held on schedule. During the Civil War, we voted. Lincoln was easily reelected to see the Union’s fight against slavery through to victory. In 1918, while our nation was in the midst of the Spanish Flu epidemic and the First World War, the people elected the 66th United States Congress. During both World Wars and the Cold one that followed, Americans went to the polls.
October 29, 1864: Depiction of Union soldiers lining up to vote (Illustration by William Waud, via Harper’s Weekly)
Americans vote. We vote no matter what. We vote for people who died for us to have that right. We cannot shirk our one chance to enact change in our government and our country just because our reality is scary. Fear is all the more reason we should be voting. Susan B. Anthony got arrested for showing up at the polls in 1872 with an “I vote no matter what” mindset and that’s the only reason I even have a choice to vote this year. I hope, I pray, COVID-19 is just a piece of our history by the time the 2020 election rolls around. However, even if it’s not, even if our future is starkly like this dire circumstance, I Will Vote. No matter how hard, how dangerous, our future may become, We Must Vote. Not in spite of challenges, but because of them.
November 2, 1920: for the first time ever, New York women cast their votes in a Presidential election. For more moving images of American suffragists, click here.
Thinking about an election more than six months away feels trivial, almost foolish. If we cannot even plan for tomorrow, or next week, how dare we plan for November? But some things transcend the day-to-day, some events that take precedent over even the gravest of challenges. Exercising our right to vote is one of them.
Blake Kiernan is a 20-year-old University of Pennsylvania student from Short Hills, New Jersey. Her focus is political journalism and poetics, and she has written for VoteThatJawn, Penn Political Review, HuffPost, as well as publishing her own book with her father, a business journalist. She also passionately runs a Philly founded nonprofit, “First Generation Investors”.