In the fall of 1918, the United States was approaching midterm elections like no other before. Not only was President Woodrow Wilson and his fellow Democrats trying to keep control of Congress during the latter part of the First World War – they were trying to do so in the midst of one of the deadliest pandemics in history.
The first wave of the so-called Spanish flu had started this spring, when the first official cases were reported at Camp Funston, an American army training camp in Fort Riley, Kansas. The second wave, which appeared in September 1918 in a military training camp and a naval installation near Boston, would be much worse. This time the flu spread quickly to the civilian population of Boston and other cities on the East Coast. In October alone, a total of 195,000 Americans died.
As scientists rushed to find a vaccine, public health officials turned to proven methods of social distancing and quarantine. The state and local authorities in the country have prohibited public gatherings, the closure of schools, churches, theaters, bars, and other places where people usually gather in groups.
READ MORE: Pandemics That Changed History
Candidates campaigned amidst social isolation
Because of these general prohibitions, many candidates in mid-1918 were unable to campaign in the usual way. In many cases banned from organizing rallies or speaking, they were forced to use less direct forms of communication, including searching for newspaper coverage or sending campaign materials through mail.
Some candidates have even accused public health officials of trying to influence the elections by limiting turnout. After local authorities canceled a scheduled speech by Democrat Alfred E. Smith in Haverstraw, New York, due to flu concerns, another Democratic leader smoked New york times on a “republican quarantine against the speeches of democratic campaign”. (Smith still managed to overthrow Republican President Charles Whitman as governor in November.)
READ MORE: How American cities tried to stop the spread of the 1918 Spanish flu
Vote in a pandemic
Since local and state authorities largely controlled the measures taken to control the spread of the virus, the mid-term vote in 1918 seemed very different depending on which part of the country you were in.
In November, while the flu generally decreased in the east of the country, it intensified in the west. In Sacramento, California, some polling stations could not open, according to the Sacramento beebecause “there weren’t enough citizens who were doing well enough.” In San Francisco, health officials issued an order in late October requiring people to wear face masks in public or in a group of two or more people. All poll workers and voters were required to wear masks on polling day, San Francisco the Chronicle to call it “the first masked ballot ever known in American history.”
However, things were 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 elections. In New York, the health commissioner, Dr. Royal S. Copeland, also began canceling the restrictions in early November, with companies returning to normal working hours on polling day.
Despite the risks involved, there appears to have been little public discussion of simply postponing the election that year. Jason Marisam, a professor of law at Hamline University who studied the effects of the influenza pandemic on the intermediate periods of 1918, argues that there could well have been a question of postponement – if the United States had not been at war at the time. But with their troops fighting abroad, the spirit of civic pride of the Americans was there and the vote was seen as an act of necessary patriotism.
READ MORE: Why the second wave of the Spanish flu in 1918 was so deadly
Low turnout – and a Republican victory
Aside from patriotism, only about 40% of eligible voters in the United States voted on November 5, 1918, up from 50% in the last six months. The Republicans won control of the House and the Senate for the first time since 1908, marking a major defeat for Wilson and his foreign policy program.
The low voter turnout cannot be attributed entirely to influenza. At the time, approximately 2 million men fought in the war, which represents a high percentage of the American electoral population. (American women would not get the vote until 1920.) However, even if the flu only partially explains the drop in votes, it undoubtedly had an impact.
“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 people who did not vote,” writes Marisam.
Although the mid-term election was successful in advancing the pandemic, its consequences have seen an increase in influenza infections and deaths, possibly due to the lifting of quarantine restrictions. Then, six days after election day, an armistice ended the fighting during the First World War. Many Americans have left their homes for the first time in weeks or months, coming together in groups to celebrate the end of the war. Tragically, the festivities surrounding the armistice and the massive return of soldiers from the front would cause a new wave of influenza cases in many cities across the country – and around the world.
The political fallout from the 1918 elections was also real. The Republicans in Congress, back in power, then blocked the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and the accession of the United States to the beloved League of Nations of Wilson. In 1920, Warren G. Harding won the presidency, announcing the end of the progressive era and the beginning of an era of republican domination that would last another 12 years.
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