How the 1918 pandemic influenced the elections of that time in the United States

How the 1918 pandemic influenced the elections of that time in the United States

The 1918 pandemic had an impact on voter turnout.

© Getty Images
The 1918 pandemic had an impact on voter turnout.

The pandemic has dramatically altered the way the 2020 electoral process takes place in the United States.

Party conventions have been essentially virtual. Candidates hardly campaign in the streets.

And the health authorities implore citizens to vote by mail, instead of crowding into lines on election day.

It has become commonplace to say that an election has “never before” been held under these conditions.

But some historians recall that just over a century ago, in 1918, the country also went to the polls amid a devastating global pandemic, the so-called “Spanish flu.” And that some of the experiences from then could give clues about what these elections will be.


“The influenza pandemic of 1918 definitely had an impact on the elections that year,” Alex Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the Study of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, United States, tells BBC Mundo.

Institutions sought to accommodate the pandemic.

© Getty Images
Institutions sought to accommodate the pandemic.

“As is known, the worst wave of the pandemic occurred at the end of the summer and continued until the fall and early winter of 1918, precisely around the end of the electoral campaign and on election day,” he adds.

That year the United States did not elect a president, but federal parliamentary elections took place as well as numerous local elections.

“Perhaps the biggest impact on the election was that candidates in most states and local districts were unable to hold political rallies due to the prohibition to the agglomerations in force in the majority of localities “, says Navarro.

“Before the days of television and radio, candidates spent most of their time campaigning in person. With that option out of the way, campaigns quickly turned to mailing material and creative use of news stories. Newspaper.”

No employees

The other main impact was on voting sites and voter turnout, says the expert.

In some towns and cities there were trouble getting enough poll workers to show up at the voting tables, as they feared contracting the flu.

Election officials were in short supply during the pandemic.

© Getty Images
Election officials were in short supply during the pandemic.

Some municipalities erected tents in gardens and fields to be used as voting precincts. In the city of Spokane, in the state of Washington, electoral officials appointed inspectors to monitor voting tables and control crowds, Alex Navarro tells BBC Mundo.


In some states there were discussions about postponing the elections, but in the end no state took that step.

Many people were not in the elections for fear of the pandemic.

© Getty Images
Many people were not in the elections for fear of the pandemic.

“In the end, voter turnout was about ten percentage points less than in previous legislative elections, reaching 40% of the electorate, compared to 50% in 1914,” says the academic.

“The lower electoral turnout was most likely due to the pandemic and the fear that people had of congregating around the polling stations,” he adds.

A situation that, if repeated in the 2020 elections, could have a shocking effect on the outcome of this year’s elections.

Some have warned that a high electoral abstention due to fear of the coronavirus could benefit efforts to re-elect President Donald Trump.

Attending electoral events without masks or social distancing has become one of the symbols of the most loyal followers of the current president, so some observers warn that if that trend continues, and Trump voters will go with greater fidelity to the ballot boxes, while opponents stay at home fearing the pandemic, that could make a difference in the November results.

Under the same logic, Democrats accuse the US president of trying to make it more difficult to vote remotely through the use of the postal system, again assuming that a higher degree of electoral abstention could end up benefiting Trump.

Impact on beliefs

Although the electoral impact of the pandemic was manifested more clearly in the figures for citizen participation in the elections, there are studies in the United States and other nations that seek to establish whether this political impact was broader.

The pandemic could have a long-term impact on people's political beliefs.

© Getty Images
The pandemic could have a long-term impact on people’s political beliefs.

Today it is speculated whether the coronavirus crisis will have changed the long-term beliefs of the electorate on issues such as the role of government in society.

Some think that the 1918 pandemic also had a significant impact on political thought of the time in European countries.

An academic study published last May by economist Kristian Blickle, affiliated with the New York office of the US central bank [Federal Reserve] suggests that the relative strength of the Nazi regime in the various regions of Germany in the 1930s is correlated to some extent with the impact of the 1918 pandemic on each of those regions.

According to that study, German areas that had the highest per capita deaths from the Spanish flu in 1918 tended to vote more for extremist parties like the Nazis in the 1930s.

Of course, no one knows what the ultimate impact of the coronavirus crisis will be on the political and electoral life of the United States.

Memories of 1918 suggest, however, that it is difficult for an event as traumatic as a pandemic not to have a significant and lasting impact in the political life of this society.

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