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Will Democracy Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Noe Tanigawa
Hawai’i Public Radio

While most Americans have been consumed with worries about family, health and livelihoods, political scientists and others have raised concerns about how America’s democracy may be changed by the global pandemic. 




Common Cause has recently released recommendations about voting and elections in response to COVID-19. In Hawai'i, a futures expert agrees more participation options will be needed, especially for people in a new generation who may have never mailed a letter.

Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai’i Public Radio
Hawai’i Public Radio
Jairus Grove, Director of the UH Manoa Research Center for Futures Studies. His most recent book, Savage Ecologies, deals with how violence shapes the world as we know it.

When the pandemic started, every one was looking for a futurist, according to political scientist Jairus Grove, director of the University of Hawaii Center for Futures Studies. He says rather than predict the future, he works to raise awareness about the “black swan” events, the remote or unlikely events, that we’re not taking seriously enough.


"So one of the biggest ones is thinking seriously about what it would mean for there never to be a cure for COVID. What if COVID becomes a permanent feature of our lives?"   


Planning for that has implications on how we proceed, Grove says, and requires us to look closely at the long-term foundations of America's democracy. He says steps need to be taken to assure a credible election process in November.


"Unequivocal commitment beyond party to mail-in ballot systems is a good start," says Grove. The U.S. military votes by mail when they're abroad, it's been used by many states, and has had no more auditing problems than the various hanging chads and digital ballot boxes that we've used."


"What we need are as many different ways as possible for people to access democratic institutions," Grove contends. "You're either in favor of democracy, which means you want as few barriers of entry as possible, or you're opposed to full participation,  in which case what you're saying is, you would prefer it if you have to make decisions without being held accountable by the voting public. I think it is that simple."


Common Cause has already cautioned that funding for systems they consider crucial for elections, like expanding absentee voting and vote-by-mail options during an emergency, were not included in the first CARES Act.


Social distancing and isolation measures limit broad political expression, Grove says, and could end up shaping our democracy. 


"Very often, the will of the people is not fairly represented in the institutions that are elected to represent them. And there's the other possibility which has been a recurring feature in American history which is that the majority opinion is unjust. And that to draw attention to that, to change people's minds, to insist on a better democracy has required a committed few, but a large number to collectively put themselves in the way. That's the history of civil rights in this country, the history of the right for women to vote in this country."


"One of the things we're not taking seriously enough, because we assume this all is temporary, is that democracy will be there when we get back to it. But what if COVID is permanent? [And] to think seriously about how long you can leave democracy before it disappears."


Grove contends people underestimate how much our elections run on door-to-door, person-to-person contact. Replacing those types of outreach with pop-up ads, social media, texts and online campaigning is already underway.


Grove maintains the government needs to establish and build trust in a variety of voting systems, including perhaps online or by text, to safeguard elections this November.


In a larger sense, Grove says, people tend to be somewhat prepared for likely scenarios. Grove contends preparing for remote possibilities, for example, permanent COVID-19 restrictions, or a combination COVID-19 and a hurricane, could offer resilience in the face of events we cannot predict.


Savage Ecology is the title of Jairus Grove's latest book. It's about how violence shapes our world.  


Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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