Even in war, America has kept up its democratic traditions. We can’t stop now.
Darkness reigned. It was 1864, and the nation was split into two warring camps. Casualties rose steadily — previously unimaginable numbers, ultimately reaching about 750,000 dead — and fighting continued throughout the year. Gen. George McClellan, the Democratic nominee, posed a genuine threat to a second term for Abraham Lincoln. McClellan promised a quick, negotiated end to the war; a Lincoln defeat would have led to a permanently divided nation and the preservation of slavery in the Southern states.
The fate of the war, the future of the Republic, the nature of the American experiment: Everything hung in the balance. And to preserve that experiment, Lincoln insisted that the presidential election go forward.
The president was fully prepared to lose the election and, according to due constitutional form, to surrender power the following March. In August 1864, in a private note, he wrote, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.” But he would accept the verdict of the voters. Here was an incumbent president, the commander in chief of a nation facing a sustained armed rebellion, unilaterally subsuming his own ambitions and his own priorities to the very constitutional order then under siege.
He was unwilling to sacrifice democracy to save it — a lesson we need to bear in mind as the coronavirus pandemic threatens primaries in many states and could, in the Age of Trump, conceivably affect the general election in November.
Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Ohio have postponed their state primaries because of concerns over the transmission of the coronavirus. Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are scheduled for April 28 — about the time the curve we are hoping to flatten may or may not be trending in the best of directions.
It will be tempting for leaders in those states and others to postpone their primaries. Instead, in this hour of crisis, state officials — understandably scrambling to secure their people — should do all they can to hold their elections as soon as possible. The legitimacy of the eventual Democratic nominee could depend on it.
History is on the side of proceeding in times of uncertainty. There’s something in the American character that has long insisted on pressing ahead with democracy’s fundamental task: the casting of ballots and the choosing of leaders. In addition to the Lincoln example, historians know that James Madison was re-elected amid the War of 1812; the midterm elections of 1814 took place not long after the British had invaded Washington; the 1918 balloting occurred despite the ravages of the Spanish flu; the 1932 election went forward in the face of the Great Depression; and Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected in 1944, during World War II. Even 9/11 delayed the New York City mayoral election only by a matter of weeks.
We have world enough and time — and, in several states, the experience — to make the voting in November safe and secure. Colorado offers us perhaps the most promising model. A “vote at home” state (Hawaii, Oregon and Washington have forms of this, too), Colorado mails ballots to all registered voters well in advance of Election Day. Voters can either mail them back or drop them off at central locations at any point in the weeks-long window of time. Most people have chosen this option; think of it as curbside democracy.
There are security issues, of course: ballots could be intercepted and illegally cast by people with access to a person’s mail. There are, however, signature-checking safeguards in place. No system — including the current one — is perfect. But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This coming Monday, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden are introducing legislation to make mail-in ballots available to every voter in America.
We need to have these kinds of conversations about the election honestly, rationally, and now. The sooner the better, for chaos could lead to a nightmare scenario: the possibility that President Trump might take advantage of the unfolding health crisis to delay the November election.
Alarmist? Not for anyone who’s paid even glancing attention to the president’s will to power and contempt for constitutional convention. Though he’s recently signaled that postponement isn’t an issue, in the past he’s also joked — at least we think he was joking — about blowing past the two-term limit imposed on presidents by the 22nd Amendment. He retweeted Jerry Falwell Jr.’s suggestion that Mr. Trump be given two additional years in office to make up for time lost to the Mueller inquiry. And he has long trafficked in conspiracy theories about unproven voter fraud in 2016.
The good news is that the Constitution so ably defended by Lincoln gives the executive virtually no control over the timing of elections. Anxious about monarchal absolutism, the founders invested Congress, not the president, with the power to schedule the selection of presidential electors. In a 1934 decision, the Supreme Court held that Congress has every “power essential to preserve the department and institutions of the general government from impairment or destruction, whether threatened by force or corruption.” By statute, Congress has set the date — the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, every four years — and the power to alter that date lies not with the branch established by Article II, the executive, but with the lawmakers whose authority is rooted in Article I.
Scholars do not believe that even action by the president under national-emergency powers could postpone the quadrennial election unless Congress agreed — which means the Democratic House may be the only bulwark against constitutional chaos come fall.
These are early days in this crisis. We could do worse, though, than to look to Lincoln. When he wrote his letter about possible defeat in the summer of 1864, he said he would stay at his post until the last hour, true to his oath, making the best of things with President-elect McClellan to “save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.” In the gloom of disunion, a bit of light. May we find our way forward as Lincoln — and all of us — did in other days of darkness.
Jon Meacham is the author, most recently, of “The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross.”