Heading to the Polls in a Pandemic

If you voted in this latest election, then congratulations are in order, you participated in the democratic process during a global pandemic. A national election has not happened amidst an outbreak of this scale in over 100 years, not since the 1918 midterm elections. The elections of that year were held against the backdrop of the Spanish Flu, a global pandemic that claimed over 50 million lives worldwide. As bad as the Spanish Flu was, it wasn’t the only thing affecting turnout that year; the 1918 midterms happened during the tail end of World War 1, a conflict which saw over 4 million Americans – who were all eligible voters – serve in the armed forces[1].

The Seattle Star, 10/19/1918

The Spanish Flu first hit U.S. shores during the spring of 1918, but it was the second wave of the Spanish Flu in the fall of that year that did the most damage to the nation. The virus affected the nation asynchronously, hitting the east coast hardest in September and October and the west coast following behind by about a month; so while the second wave of the Spanish Flu had largely wound down on the east coast by Election Day and people cast their ballots like usual, the opposite was true of the situation on the west coast.

The Spanish Flu outbreak caused a marked shift in how politicians conducted campaigns and tried to reach voters.
The Diamond Drill, 11/02/1918
Not everyone was unhappy about the fact that politicians could no longer go around making speeches.
The Seattle Star, 11/02/1918

The pandemic caused the cancellation of many political events, including rallies and speaking engagements, prompting outrage and even accusations of election interference by some politicians[2]. Some local elections on the west coast were postponed because of the virus, however, congressional midterm elections went ahead as planned. With bans on the normal stump speeches and rallies, this election marked a shift in political campaigning as many politicians turned to methods that are now trademarks of election years: advertisements, telephone calls, and lots of mailed political literature[3].

To combat the spread of the virus, some polling stations focused on disinfecting throughout the day[4], others tried to discourage people from lingering longer than necessary, and still others required masks in order to vote. The city of South Bend in Indiana banned the display of results in newspaper storefronts, for fear of people congregating around the windows[5].

The Spanish Flu changed how elections were conducted in many places. The Alaska Daily Empire, 11/04/1918
The Seattle Star, 11/02/1918

At 40%, Voter turnout was low for the 1918 midterm elections, compared to 52% for the previous midterms, but the role of the World War 1 draft makes it difficult to assess the exact impact the virus had on turnout[6]. Further complicating the calculations is the fact that the percentage of the population that could vote had been steadily increasing as various states passed women’s suffrage, prior to the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

El Paso Herald, 11/05/1918

Regardless of who they voted for, everyone received a pleasant surprise shortly after the election. An armistice was signed just six days after the midterms ended, World War 1 was over. Sadly, as people took to the streets to celebrate and as many American troops began returning from Europe, a third wave of the Spanish Flu would hit the U.S. The unfortunate confluence of the election, mass celebrations, and the return of so many soldiers from overseas made a third wave a matter of if, not when. The potential role of the elections in spreading the disease is impossible to know. With vaccines for Coronavirus on the horizon though, there is reason to hope that this coming spring will not see the continuation of our own terrible pandemic but will instead witness much needed relief and a return to normalcy.

Written by Christopher Russell

Edited by Anastasia Tarmann

[1] The American Expeditionary Forces. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/stars-and-stripes/articles-and-essays/a-world-at-war/american-expeditionary-forces/

[2] Pruitt, Sarah. How the US Pulled off Midterm Elections Amid the 1918 Flu Pandemic. History.com, 04-22-2020. https://www.history.com/news/1918-pandemic-midterm-elections

[3] Pruitt, Sarah. How the US Pulled off Midterm Elections Amid the 1918 Flu Pandemic.

[4] Polls are Disinfected as Arizonans Ballot. El Paso Herald, 11-05-1918. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88084272/1918-11-05/ed-1/seq-10/

[5] ‘Flu’ Ban Prohibits Election Bulletins in Window Tuesday. The South Bend News-Times, 11-02-1918. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87055779/1918-11-02/ed-1/seq-5/

[6] Pruitt, Sarah. How the US Pulled off Midterm Elections Amid the 1918 Flu Pandemic.


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