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EDITORIAL: Plan now for fall elections

York Dispatch Editorial Board
A special election is held to replace former state Senator Mike Folmer, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

It may not seem like it during these early days, with coronavirus cases spiking and the federal response still getting its footing, but we will eventually come out on the other side of what has become a once-in-a-century pandemic.

What’s not known with any certainty is when. Will the virtual shutdown of much of society last through the spring, or through the year?

Either way, state and federal officials need to broaden their emergency-response plans.

The bulk of the attention now is on arresting the skyrocketing incidence rate and shoring up the health systems’ ability to respond. This is as it should be; public health is the highest priority now and it’s still anybody’s guess whether the number of cases — which soared past 35,000 over the weekend with nearly 500 fatalities — will level off in the hundreds of thousands or the millions.

Too, there has been belated but robust attention in Congress to craft an economic response. Only those with the heartiest of constitutions dare peak at their retirement accounts these days — and for the many Americans who don’t have IRAs or 401(k)s, the situation is even more dire. The stock markets have tanked and jobless rates have soared. So, again, while it would have been nice had more lawmakers given the national economy the type of attention they gave their personal portfolios when the breadth of the outbreak became apparent, focus is now rightly on economic stimulus and unemployment support.

But there is yet another important area of concern: the body politic.

State and federal lawmakers are just now beginning to grapple with the very real possibility that primary voting, the national caucuses and perhaps even the general election could take place under the cloud of this continuing health crisis.

The effects are already being seen. Seven states have postponed Democratic primaries because of the virus, and Alabama delayed a Republican runoff for a U.S. Senate seat. Among primaries coming up are Pennsylvania’s, on April 28, and state lawmakers are discussing legislation to delay that vote until June 2.

While such steps may be necessary over the short term, delay and postponement do not a game plan make.

The necessity of carrying out voting in a presidential election year is non-negotiable. It is the most important decision a nation can make. Even during the darkest days of our past — the Civil War and World War II, for instance — elections were carried out and democracy persevered.

Of course, the White House’s current occupant has often “joked” about overstaying his constitutionally limited time in office, raising the concern that an ongoing health crisis could serve as an excuse to delay November’s election. Fortunately, the president does not have the authority to unilaterally alter the election date; it’s set by federal statute.

With that in mind, lawmakers must turn their attention to determining what steps are needed to keep the wheels of democracy turning.

The Associated Press reports Pennsylvania is also looking at ways to “relax rules around how mail-in ballots can be processed in advance of polls closing.” That’s a start. Other strategies include expanding early and absentee voting, instituting roadside ballot boxes, and exploring secure methods of online voting.

The discussions need to start now. Contingency plans must be determined well in advance of Nov. 3 and Congress may need to provide funding for the additional expenses associated with, say, widescale vote-by-mail initiatives.

The nation’s public-health care response to the coronavirus pandemic has been disappointing. The economic response has been harried. There is no excuse for federal officials to drop the ball a third time.

Attention must be turned immediately to securing the electoral process and, with it, the right of every American to weigh in on, among other things, how the nation’s leadership has handled this unprecedented public-health crisis.