Americans headed to the polls to vote in the 1918 midterms as the Spanish flu ravaged the country. The pandemic would eventually kill 675,000 people and lead to a 40% drop in voter turnout over the 1914 midterms.

As COVID-19 continues to hammer the U.S., will it have a similar impact on the number of people voting in this year’s election? What lessons can we learn from 1918 about how to vote during a pandemic?

The Spanish flu’s second wave emerged in September 1918, prompting officials to enforce quarantines and close churches, bars, and other establishments to encourage social distancing. By the time November rolled around, some parts of the country had improved, but others had not. 

Things were particularly bad in California, where some polling places were not able to open because there were not enough healthy poll workers to run them. Voting by mail was not yet a common practice at this time so casting a ballot in person was the only option available. There was a strong sense of civic pride in the U.S. in 1918 as the country entered its final days of World War I, and many voters put their health aside to cast a ballot.

“I must get back to bed at once,”one 1918 voter told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I really should not have come out to vote with this flu!”

While the flu certainly had an impact on voter turnout, historians say that World War I was also a major factor, as about 2 million men were serving overseas on Election Day and the practice of absentee voting for active-duty servicemembers had not yet started.

“Voter turnout was lower than it had been previously, by about 10 percentage points,” Alex Navarro of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan told NBC News, noting that while “the pandemic almost certainly had an impact … it was also wartime. You had a lot of soldiers who were overseas or in military camps.”

Since 1918, all 50 states have adopted at least some form of voting by mail, with some ramping up those efforts as COVID-19 set in. This year, more than 28 million mail ballots were requested and another 43 million will be sent automatically to voters across the country, according to CNN.

Some of the largest increases come from swing states. Pennsylvania had 2.1 million mail ballot requests in 2020, compared to 287,000 in 2016; Michigan had 2.3 million this year, compared to 1.2 million in 2016.

The prevalence of mail-in voting and the high levels of partisanship surrounding the presidential election suggest that voter turnout this year will not experience the same dip it did in 1918. Turnout in the 2018 midterms was the highest reported since the 1914 midterms, and experts are already predicting that 2020’s turnout will be higher than in 2016.

“The intensity of the electorate is without recent precedent,” Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic political-data firm, told The Atlantic.

More than 8 million people have voted so far through mail ballots or early in-person voting — about 10 times the number who had done so by this point in 2016, according to the United States Elections Project.
McDonald told Reuters he expects total voter turnout in the 2020 election to hit 150 million or 65% of eligible voters. That would mark the highest it has been in a general election since 1908.


Grassroots Pulse covers public policy and political issues aimed at engaging highly-active policy makers, donors, and grassroots leaders at the forefront of the political process in America today.

Image Credit: Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash