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Panelists argued that the novel coronavirus outbreak makes democratic participation especially important during the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics’ inaugural “Fast Forum” Thursday evening.
Congressman and Chair of the House Rules Committee James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) and co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund and a fall 2019 IOP Resident Fellow LaTosha Brown discussed how lawmakers and activists are responding to the coronavirus outbreak. IOP director Mark D. Gearan ’78 moderated the 30-minute conversation, which was held on Zoom for Harvard affiliates and live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube for the general public.
“Even in the midst of this crisis, while it’s really important for us to address the financial issues and the financial crisis, democracy delay is dangerous. So we have to be just as diligent around protecting democracy in this moment. Matter of fact, I believe even more so,” Brown said.
Given that social distancing makes it harder for people to vote in person, the two speakers highlighted the need for increased accessibility to voting, through methods such as absentee ballots and early voting.
“We need to make sure that the people can vote and that everybody who’s eligible to vote has that right to vote,” McGovern said.
The coronavirus outbreak has also posed challenges to voting within Congress. McGovern — who was commissioned by Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to deliver a report on these issues — explained the constitutional, logistical, and security problems with remote voting in Congress.
“Technology’s imperfect, so if we do something like this for a debate and vote in Congress, if the Russians or the Iranians or the Chinese wanted to mess around with us, they could block some of our communication and make us look incompetent,” McGovern said.
“The second thing is, we have members of Congress, some of whom are very technologically advanced, some who are not,” he added. “We have a lot of members of Congress who still have used flip phones, so this technology is a very intimidating thing for many of them.”
When a student asked about the “bright spots” that can be seen from this crisis, McGovern said he has been moved by “the goodness in the American people” as ordinary citizens support each other during the pandemic.
Brown concluded the conversation by highlighting the potential for healthcare reform in this moment.
“I’m hoping that this health crisis allows us to really examine that 32 million people are without health insurance, that we realize how interdependent we are as human beings, that the health of somebody else actually impacts the health of us, so that we can have a real dialogue and a more open dialogue around healthcare in this country,” Brown said.
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