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IOWA Magazine | September 2020

Post-Pandemic World: Politics

Will mail-in voting become the norm? Will national social and labor policies change to meet the demands of the times?

November Offers a Test Case for the Future of Our Elections

BY TRACY OSBORN Associate Professor, Political Science

THOSE OF US WHO STUDY American politics are following how the coronavirus crisis will affect both politics and the upcoming 2020 election. For politics, we have watched issues such as masks, the distribution of public health information, and the reopening of the economy become salient, partisan issues. We expect that political ads in the fall 2020 campaign season will continue to highlight these topics and the president's role in them.

The coronavirus also brings important questions about how the election will be conducted in November. Depending on the virus situation, we expect to see an increased focus on mail-in or other forms of voting in absentia in order to keep people away from polling locations and accommodate at-risk populations. We can look to Oregon as an example, because the state has used entirely mail-in voting since 2000. All voters receive a ballot in the mail, and they drop the ballot in a security envelope in one of many drop-off locations. As a result, Oregon has a high voter turnout rate and high satisfaction with this system among voters. Importantly, Oregon also reports no security or fraud issues with the process. However, critics worry about the ability of other states to create the apparatus needed to mail ballots to the right citizens safely in time for the November election. Oregon checks whether each voter's signatures match between the ballot and an official state document; would more populous states have the capacity to perform this security check? For political scientists, questions of potential mistakes (such as the Iowa Democratic caucus issues in February) weigh against the imperative to provide the fundamental right to vote to as many people as possible in the midst of a public health crisis.


Our Social and Labor Policies Should Change With the Times

BY COLIN GORDON F. Wendell Miller Professor of History

THE COVID-19 CRISIS and the accompanying recession exposed serious gaps and weaknesses in our social policies. By early June, one in four workers (over 300,000 in Iowa) had applied for unemployment insurance, a patchwork program that reaches less than 30 % of the unemployed and replaces less than half of lost wages. In the only rich nation without universal paid sick or family leave, millions must stay home to care for themselves or family members. Gaps in health coverage, already compromised by the failure of many states to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, grew wider as workers lost employment-based coverage alongside their jobs. Front-line workers, especially in states that resisted closing or opened early, risked their lives in settings where basic protections—including occupational health and safety regulations and workers compensation—had been largely dismantled over the last generation.

The federal response, including the Families First and CARES Acts passed in March, papered over some of this—offering a temporary program of paid leave, a one-time extension and expansion of unemployment insurance coverage, and some increased funding for food and rental assistance—but the larger problems remained in place. Our social policies are a meager patchwork in which eligibility for assistance, and the generosity of that assistance, depend on the state in which you live. In some states, the conviction that any form of state assistance breeds idleness and dependency is fierce, and only a fraction of the poor or the unemployed get meaningful assistance. And across all states, tax cuts and balanced budget amendments have undercut the capacity to respond to basic needs—let alone a pandemic accompanied by an economic collapse.

Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, we have a likely future and a possible future. The likely future, unfortunately, is that things will go back to the way they were—or get worse. The fiscal damage of the recession will press states to slash public programs in the hope of balancing budgets and cut taxes in the hope of galvanizing growth—a pattern we saw play out in the wake of the Great Recession. This will deepen both existing inequalities and our vulnerability to the next crisis. A more hopeful future rests on our willingness to recognize how the risks we face—as individuals and a society—have changed, and that our social and labor policies should change with them. We need more universal social programs, such as paid leave and Medicare for All, to break our reliance on job-based benefits. And we need more national social programs, to erase the geography inequality created by relying on state and local government.

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