June 2020

Face to Face: Voting and Elections During COVID-19

June 19, 2020    |  

“America is Woefully Unprepared for a COVID-19 Election.” That’s the headline from an in-depth exploration in Vanity Fair. From the looks of things, that may be right. In Wisconsin, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez says Republicans want to weaponize the pandemic by suppressing the vote with voter identification requirements and restrictions on mail-in and absentee ballots.

 Larry Gibson (left), professor, Francis King Carey School of Law, speaks with Bruce Jarrell, interim president, University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Larry Gibson (left), professor, Francis King Carey School of Law, speaks with Bruce Jarrell, interim president, University of Maryland, Baltimore.

In California, a judge has suspended an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom that requires the state’s counties to send mail-in ballots to all registered voters as Republicans argue the governor is usurping legislative power.

And in Maryland, elected officials on both sides of the aisle have been sharply critical of how recent elections have been run. Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford called on state elections chief Linda Lamone to step down after major problems with ballot printing, counting, and reporting.

Larry Gibson, LLB, the Morton & Sophia Macht Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, joined University of Maryland, Baltimore Interim President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, for a June 18 edition of the web-based talk program, Virtual Face to Face with Dr. Bruce Jarrell, to discuss voting and elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gibson brings 52 years of experience working on political campaigns to the conversation. He began in 1968 by successfully managing the election of Judge Joseph Howard in Baltimore. He was former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s campaign manager in three successful elections, and in 1992 he was Maryland chairman of the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign. Gibson also served as a campaign consultant and political advisor to several African political leaders, including the former presidents of Madagascar and Liberia, and the current president of Ghana. Most recently, Gibson was elected to be a delegate for presidential candidate Joe Biden at the Democratic National Convention scheduled to be held in Milwaukee in August 2020.

Jarrell kicked off the conversation by asking Gibson how elections and campaigns have adapted during the pandemic. Gibson has been directly involved in three Maryland elections since the onset of COVID-19 — the special and primary elections for the 7th Congressional District and the presidential primary. Given the circumstances, Gibson said Maryland’s election officials did “a fantastic job.”

“Keep in mind,” he said, “election officials entered this year assuming this would be a normal electoral process with people showing up at the polling places.” The pandemic turned all of that on its head, and officials had to pivot to a system that was “new to voters, new to the election officials, new to everyone.”

Jarrell agreed, equating the quickly altered voting process to the rapid but successful scramble to make COVID-19 testing widely available in the state. “If there’s anything I’ve learned, that it’s very difficult to put a new, complex system in place and get it to operate without glitches. So I certainly appreciate all they went through to make that happen,” he said of election officials.

Gibson also detailed how the principal tools of politics — handshakes, door knocking, and rallies — had to be scuttled due to social distancing concerns. There’s a long list of things that can’t take place in the middle of a pandemic, Gibson remarked as he recounted the story of Kweisi Mfume’s victory speech after the special general election April 28 to fill out the rest of late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ term.

Normally a political win would be celebrated in a festive atmosphere with cheering supporters packed into campaign headquarters. Winning during a pandemic creates a more muted affair. Gibson recalled there were only about a dozen media outlets carefully spaced 6 feet apart as Gibson introduced Mfume, who was joined onstage by his wife and oldest son. “It was strange; it was different,” Gibson said of election night.

Questions from the audience ranged from his running mate pick for Democratic presidential candidate Biden — “I’m out of prognostications with respect to vice president,” quipped Gibson — to advice to a disheartened first-time voter. “There are people who try to convince you that your ballot doesn’t count and will do lots of things to make you think that it’s not worth participating. Don’t fall for it,” Gibson said.

Watch the entire episode of Virtual Face to Face with Dr. Bruce Jarrell by clicking the link at the top of the page.