The U.S. has held an election during a pandemic before. Here’s what happened in 1918.

Americans are heading to the polls as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to rise. But this isn't the first time the U.S. has held an election during a deadly global pandemic. During the so-called 1918 Spanish Influenza, politicians were attempting to campaign and Americans trying to make their voices heard at the ballot box without many of the modern conveniences we have today, like mail-in and absentee voting.

Video Transcript


- The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything about the 2020 election with more masks, more virtual campaigning, more early voting, and more voting by mail.

- A new CNN poll shows that 10% more Americans plan to cast their ballot by mail as compared to 2016.

- But while the 2020 election may be a lot, well, weirder than previous years, voting during a pandemic isn't totally unprecedented. In 1918, people were also turning out to vote in what headlines called one of the queerest elections in history. Americans 100 years ago were facing deadly and unusual obstacles in voting, with the Spanish flu pandemic wreaking havoc in the United States and the country still in the midst of World War I.

It was a midterm election year, and Democrats were fighting to maintain control of Congress. But many running for office had to abandon conventional campaign events as meetings were prohibited because of the influenza pandemic. And sometimes it got political. In New York, Democratic [INAUDIBLE] candidate Alfred E. Smith was running for governor when his rally upstate was canceled by local officials because of Spanish influenza. Democrats complained that it was really just a Republican quarantine against Democratic speeches, and Smith accused Republicans of using the epidemic for political ends.

But although campaign tactics were a little different, elections nationwide still went on as planned in spite of the influenza pandemic, with letter writing, advertising, and telephoning taking the place of the usual in-person campaign speeches in many cities. Today, the Democratic and Republican conventions and a lot of campaigning have largely gone digital in place of traditional in-person events.

But President Trump has plowed ahead with the usual in-person rallies, attracting big crowds with few COVID-19 precautions, even after testing positive for the virus himself. As election day draws near, more Americans are choosing to vote by mail in order to avoid the risk of crowds during the pandemic. But experts also say voting safely in-person can be doable if you take precautions.

ANTHONY FAUCI: If one does the-- the polling process carefully and prudently, I-- I think it would be fine for people to go to the polls.

- In 1918, Spanish flu casualties in much of the US peaked in October, but the effects certainly still lingered on Election Day. One newspaper wrote that many selected as election booth officials have been made ill by the Spanish influenza, and substitutes have been difficult to obtain for fear of the epidemic. There were some new voters that election cycle, including women in certain states that had passed suffrage rights two years before the 19th Amendment would give women the right to vote nationwide.

But turnout was still lower than usual. Nationally, voter turnout in 1918 was 10% lower than the previous midterm election. "The New York Times" would later note that the influenza pandemic kept many voters at home on Election Day. But other factors like World War I, which was winding down and would end days after the election, likely also had an impact on turnout.

Yet, despite the crazy circumstances that voters encountered, there was never any question about the legitimacy of the election results. It remains to be seen what impact today's pandemic will have on the 2020 Presidential Election Day. But with modern conveniences that were unavailable 100 years ago, there's the hope that the democratic process will prevail.