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Coronavirus in Texas

Analysis: In an important election year, politics takes a back seat

The 2020 election year was already momentous, and then a pandemic broke out, demanding the full attention of the voters whom politicians depend on. Everything from how we vote to when we vote is now in question.

Downtown Austin with considerably less traffic during the coronavirus outbreak on March 23, 2020.

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Politics are not on most people’s minds right now. It’s just noise, a distraction from the pandemic, family, friends and work.

As it should be.

But 2020 is still an election year, and it has become an even weirder one than you might have suspected.

The primary runoffs have already been delayed. Super Tuesday might seem like a million years ago, but Texans left a large number of races undecided in the March 3 party primaries. Those races were on their way to May 26 runoffs when the coronavirus intervened; as Gov. Greg Abbott was putting social distancing restrictions into place, he delayed those runoff elections until July 14.

The rest of the candidates — those who won their party nominations and are putting together their general election campaigns — are also in a pinch. They would like to be raising scads of money right now, as they’re normally doing at this point in an election cycle. They have kept up the trickle of “Send me $3!” emails, but not at the clip you would expect with runoffs approaching and a presidential election less than seven months away.

For all but the most talked-about candidates — a category pretty much confined right now to Donald Trump and Joe Biden — it’s hard to get voters’ attention in an election year. It’s harder when a pandemic has made it difficult for even top-of-the-ballot candidates to attract notice. Bernie Sanders didn’t do as well as he hoped in the March elections, but the rising pandemic made it impossible for him to stage a comeback.

Imagine what it’s like to be a relatively unknown candidate for the Texas House, with a race pages down from the presidential, U.S. Senate, congressional and statewide contests. That’s a hard spot on the ballot in a good year, and this is not a good year. The economy is hurting everyone, including people who ordinarily give to candidates. Public officials who aren’t directly involved in responding to the pandemic — the ones who aren’t having daily news conferences — are out of sight and out of mind. That’s fine for the rest of us, but electoral politics depends on an audience. Out of sight and out of mind is a political candidate’s nightmare.

Democrats, out of power in Texas, have pushed for years to turn out the Texans who register to vote and then don’t go to the polls. At the moment, they want to make it easier to vote by mail in Texas, and they're hoping the pandemic gives them a strong argument.

Even with runoffs delayed into July, they argue, voters might still be wearing masks in public, hovering near their homes and staying a couple of meters away from everyone but family.

The fight over whether to change how we vote — to broaden voting by mail to try to limit spreading the virus — is moving through the courts. Right now, voting by mail is only allowed for voters who won’t be in their home counties during the elections, those over age 65, eligible voters who are in jail and voters who are disabled. A state district judge in Austin issued a ruling Friday that would allow more people to vote absentee under the "disabled" exception because of the pandemic; the state’s attorneys have said they’ll appeal.

Cap all of that election uncertainty with the Trump administration’s recent proposal to delay the 2020 census, a postponement that would also delay next year’s redrawing of the districts represented by members of the congressional delegation and the Legislature. That’s for next year, really — the people we elect this year are supposed to draw those maps in 2021. But it puts a political spin on the delivery of the census, marks another side effect of the pandemic and contributes to the overall confusion about this political cycle.

What’s usually a political season, with upcoming runoffs and political conventions, has become a pandemic season instead. The political people are thinking about all of those things, but the audience — Texans who vote — isn’t listening.

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