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How the US Pulled Off Midterm Elections Amid the 1918 Flu Pandemic

April 22, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

A lot was on the line, and not just for Democrats in Congress.

In the fall of 1918, the United States was approaching a midterm election like none other before. Not only were President about a “Republican quarantine against Democratic campaign speeches.” (Smith still narrowly managed to unseat the Republican incumbent, Charles Whitman, as governor that November.)

READ MORE: How US Cities Tried to Halt the Spread of the 1918 Spanish Flu

Voting in a Pandemic

Since local and state authorities largely controlled the measures taken to control the spread of the virus, voting in the 1918 midterms looked very different depending on what part of the country you were in.

By November, when the flu was generally waning in the eastern part of the country, it was ramping up in the West. In Sacramento, California, some poll sites couldn’t open, according to the Sacramento Bee, because “there were not enough citizens who were well enough.” In San Francisco, health officials issued an order in late October mandating that people wear face masks while in public or in a group of two or more people. All poll workers and voters were required to wear masks on Election Day, prompting the San Francisco Chronicle to call it “the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America.”

By contrast, things were getting back to normal on the East Coast. Public health officials in Washington, D.C. made the decision to reopen churches on October 31, and schools and theaters on November 4, the day before the midterm election. In New York City, health commissioner Dr. Royal S. Copeland similarly began rolling back restrictions in early November, with businesses resuming their normal operating hours by Election Day.

Despite the risks involved, there appears to have been little public discussion about simply postponing the election that year. Jason Marisam, a law professor at Hamline University who has studied how the flu pandemic affected the 1918 midterms, argues that there might well have been talk of postponement—if the United States hadn’t been at war at the time. But with their troops fighting overseas, Americans’ spirit of civic pride was running high, and voting was seen as a necessary act of patriotism.

READ MORE: Why the Second Wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu Was So Deadly

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

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