The last time a health emergency put American policy in jeopardy was in 1918 when the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans and was dubbed the “mother of all pandemics”. The flu peaked in October and November of the same year, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians, just days before the November 5 midterm elections.
Unlike today’s politicians, who bring epidemiologists and doctors to their briefings, their predecessors 102 years ago had far less scientific knowledge. They also lacked time to organize the necessary elections, since Congress in 1845 had ordered congressional elections on the first Tuesday in November.
Newspaper reports reviewed by CBS News show that states have moved ahead with politics, although campaigns across the country in 1918 were forced to suspend traditional campaigns.
In Louisville, campaigns have been banned from public speaking due to contagion, a decision by the Messenger twice a week called it “the most unusual situation that has ever been encountered in a political campaign in this state following the flu epidemic. “
“We will cooperate fully … and we will cancel all scheduled meetings where there is evidence of any danger,” said Democratic Campaign Committee spokesperson James Garnett.
To circumvent similar assembly bans in Kansas, some campaigns in the state have moved their speeches to outdoor churches. But once state health officials found out, they were also quickly banned.
“Plans for different party organizations to get things done … went” blue “because of the flu,” The Wichita Daily Eagle in Kansas, wrote in October 1918, predicting that voters could only expect “hot stuff” in the press from campaign “spellcasters”, the most colorful term for surrogates.
In Wisconsin, candidates “worked quietly” with newspaper advertising and direct mail campaign literature because “politics in Wisconsin has been postponed indefinitely by the flu epidemic,” according to the Wisconsin State Newspaper October 27, 1918.
A silver lining with a lighter campaign calendar? “Defeated candidates will likely blame the epidemic for their defeat, but they and the successful applicants will have saved hundreds, even thousands, of dollars as a result of the epidemic,” Newspaper added.
As election day approached, activist groups relied on problem-based appeals to encourage voting, even when the pandemic had spread.
The liquor ban was on the ballot in at least eight states in 1918, and temperance activists like the Muskingum County Dry Federation in Ohio The Times Recorder accused the alcoholic beverage industry of trying to take advantage of the “human suffering and death” because of the flu. “They are relentlessly disseminating reports wherever whiskey is a cure for the great flu epidemic,” the group said in the newspaper.
Opponents of the ban bought a full-page ad in Florida The Tampa Times and said, “Alcohol has saved many lives recently in this terrible flu epidemic”, citing reports of alcohol use in “alcohol baths” for Iowa flu patients and as stimulants for ill soldiers in Camp Lee, Virginia.
The suffragists also hoped to attract supporters in the 1918 election to build on the 12 states where women had already won the vote, according to the National Constitution Center. Even though some Louisiana newspapers have warned of the grim statistics of the flu, the Shreveport Newspaper women suffragettes captured organizing electoral proceedings on foot and in cars. As the flu raged in Nevada, a state where women had been able to vote for four years, suffragists attempted revenge at the polls. “Take back the Democratic Party! “An announcement broke out in the Reno Gazette Journal, drawing on the Conservative Democratic majority in the US Senate for failing to adopt the national suffrage amendment earlier this year.
Other states have turned to patriotism to get voters to the polls, arguing that voting for the Spanish flu supported American soldiers during the First World War. Los Angeles Times on the front page, declaring: “Every faithful Californian will vote in the elections”, just six days before the war armistice.
But as polling day approached, medical concerns were placed before political victories in some states. Health authorities in North Dakota have considered “the unprecedented possibility of postponing the general election” due to more than 15,000 cases of influenza, according to The Bismarck Tribune.
A Florida headline – “Flu vs. Ballot” – in the Tampa Times warned that the virus was not partisan. “The candidates nominated for the Democratic primary worry very little about the result of the election … as the” flu “is not a person’s inspector and the Republicans, socialists, independents, etc., have the same illness as the Democrats Writes the newspaper.
Other state officials quickly said the election would take place.
“Due to rumors, the state health council has deemed it necessary to officially deny its intention to end tomorrow’s elections under the rule prohibiting assembly,” according to a bulletin in Wisconsin. Stevens Point Journal Noted. “The elections will be held as usual.”
the Marion star in Ohio too promised that the elections would continue – “Flu ban or no flu ban”.
The echoes of “social distancing” can be seen in the instructions that appeared in the Fresno voting guidelines of 1918, which urged “not to gather at the polls and avoid unnecessary exposure”.
“People are invited to enter the polling stations where they are locked up, one or two at a time, and to take all health precautions”, and have included mandatory masks in California, The Fresno Morning Republican declared. the San Francisco Chronicle noted with irony that it was the “first masked ballot ever known in American history.”
Reports portrayed California polling stations as “the quietest in their memory” and indicated that they welcomed only the most ardent voters, like Nancy Elworthy, 92, who said that even though she was almost blind, she still believed that voting was “the duty” of every citizen. It is unclear whether Elworthy noticed either his fellow voters, described by the investigators as “suffering from the flu”, or whether the polling stations lacked spray and disinfectant, according to the The Chronicle.
“I have to go back to bed immediately,” another voter told the newspaper on his way out. “I really shouldn’t have voted for this flu!” “
New Mexicans were too “scared of the flu” to vote, and Arizona polls had “light turnout” even with the state’s promise to regularly sanitize polling stations, the El Paso Herald reported. The election was “fairly quiet” in Minnesota, the Little falls herald reported, and in Utah the Parowan Times diagnosed a cause of low voter turnout: “Many women who usually vote were unable to go to the polls because of their obligation to stay at home to care for the sick.”
Some polling stations were unable to open due to “too much flu”, says The Sacramento bee, declaring “that there were not enough citizens who were doing well enough”.
Several newsrooms have also been forced to close due to quarantine laws. The Long Beach Press announced that it was unable to report the election results for the first time in its history and respectfully instructed readers not to call for questions as the telephone company staff was “weakened” Because of the disease.
Voter turnout was lower than in previous midterm elections. While the First World War had an impact on the number of eligible voters, an analysis by Jason Marisam in the Electoral law journal found that influenza had a “significant effect” on participation.
“If only a fraction of the drop in participation rate from 1914 to 1918 was due to the presence of the flu, then the disease was responsible for hundreds of thousands of people who did not vote,” Marisam noted of the drop. more than 10% of voters.
The flu has been used as a scapegoat for congressional losses by the Republican National President and has caused court challenges in some communities, such as when a defeated North Dakota state legislative candidate claimed that officials had unfairly delivered ballots to houses in some districts and not in others, according to the Grand Forks Herald.
Today, as US government leaders face another pandemic, historians recognize the similar challenges facing the federal system during the Spanish flu era.
“I think there is something about not absorbing the historical lessons that have contributed to our delays and our actions,” Harvard University professor Alex Keyssar, a specialist in the history of human rights, told CBS News. elections. “To be clear, that does not mean that everyone in the [Trump] the administration should have been informed of the 1918 flu … but there should be a center of expertise that absorbs these historic lessons to which policy makers are turning. “
In addition, states mainly control their own elections, which has resulted in a patchwork of emergency response and political decisions in states, Keyssar said. While states have high hopes for the relatively rapid development of antiviral treatment in the months to come before the general election, most states that have not yet voted in the primary elections are hesitant to risk increasing the spread of the virus.
At this point, the knowledge that COVID-19 is highly contagious and the belief that it has a higher death rate than influenza have convinced twelve states to postpone their presidential primaries and five states to expand postal voting in order to ” avoid exposing voters unnecessarily to possibilities. infection.
Unlike political leaders a century ago, most believe it is too dangerous to go to the polls yet.