How to Avoid the Next COVID-19 Related Crisis

Eric MlynWe can forestall the looming democratic crisis facing the United States, but we need to move quickly.  And since the COVID-19 crisis has shown us that the federal government will not solve this, much can be done if states act quickly.

COVID-19 did not create the crisis of liberal democracy. I spent last semester warning my students and anybody else who would listen about national and global threats to liberal democracy that predate Trumpism.  Though this threat took on many forms here in the United States, voting rights – a necessary but not sufficient condition for the health and sustenance of democracy – have been under assault for many years through things like voter suppression and gerrymandering.   More recently, from the Supreme Court decision on Shelby vs. Holder that invalidated key aspects of the Voting Rights Act to President Trump’s spurious claims of past and potential voter fraud, free and fair elections in the US have faced unprecedented threats.

Now bring on the global pandemic where in the US the likely presence of COVID-19 in the fall makes holding elections as if business were usual nearly impossible.  Witness the Wisconsin primary last month where an inability to reach a political compromise on mail in voting resulted in citizens having to choose between voting and their health.

Like with the steps we needed to take to reduce the economic and public health carnage of COVID-19 – such as social distancing, testing and contact tracing, electoral experts agree that we can make voting safe and inclusive.  Steps such as  expanding mail in balloting, lengthening the time for early voting, making online voter registration easy and accessible, and designing polling locations in November that will allow for social distancing and the safety of poll workers are all necessary and possible. There is no shortage of good detailed plans out there.

So given the federal failures across all levels of planning and implementation during this global pandemic, leadership for averting this democratic crisis is coming from governors and states, and not the federal government.  Moreover, it is coming from both Democratic and Republican Governors, and from a recent bi-partisan report.   It is fortuitous that states control election laws, and many are taking important steps to avoid the COVID-19 democratic crisis that looms before us.  Though the first stimulus bill included $400 million for states to invest in their electoral systems, most experts agree that we need  nearly $4 billion to get us ready for elections in November. Let the feds provide the money and get out of the way so we can avoid yet another COVID-19 related crisis. It is not too early to start learning from our mistakes.


“Now…Back to Zoom”

Eric MlynOften a few of the 13 students in my seminar on Engaged Citizenship and Social Change arrive a few minutes late because the East West bus was full or delayed. Not so yesterday, the first day of my class going on-line. All 13 were there right at 1:25, one seemingly broadcasting from bed, one from a beautiful outdoor table, others from different parts of their house. I felt happy to see them all, to see that they were well and to launch this new way of learning together.

In most ways, it went very well. Over the last two weeks, I had taken advantage of the many seminars that Duke offered to learn how to use Zoom and other online teaching tools. The training and support for our great online pivot here has been simply incredible, even exciting. I was proud that I had learned how to share my screen, create breakout rooms and share audio from my computer. The students knew how to raise their hands virtually and were very engaged in the class material.

But also, and I think this is important to acknowledge for all of us, this is not what any of us signed up for and there was something missing. At the end of class, despite the fact that it had all gone well, I felt a hole. I missed the buzz of quiet conversation as I entered the classroom, the crinkle of students opening their potato chip bags, and my ability to walk around the room in a way that helped me emphasize a point, clarify a concept or ask a hard question.

So while we embrace this great pivot and figure out how to learn together while physically apart, let us allow for the full range of emotions that this entails. As Flower Darby of Northern Arizona University wrote of faculty in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “At some point, they will need time to mourn the loss of spring 2020.” And so as the dogwoods reach full bloom out of my dining room window and I prepare for my 3:05 class today, I try to embrace it all. I invite you to as well. Now… Back to Zoom.”