To slow the spread of the new coronavirus, virtually all aspects of public life are being scaled back, including the democratic process itself.
In an extraordinary move, Ohio on Monday delayed its primary election, previously scheduled for today. Yesterday afternoon, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine directed the filing of a lawsuit to postpone the primary to prevent voters and poll workers from being exposed to the coronavirus. Initially, a judge ruled that it was too late to put the election on hold, but late Monday night, DeWine announced the director of the Ohio Department of Health would order Ohio polls to close on Tuesday as part of a health emergency. Overnight, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed that the election should be delayed; it is now scheduled for June 2.
The other three March 17 primaries, however, are proceeding as scheduled, albeit with some modifications. Florida and Illinois have relocated polling places away from nursing homes, while Arizona consolidated polling locations in Maricopa County, its largest county. The states are also taking precautions to ensure voters’ health, like instructing poll workers to clean voting machines regularly and providing hand sanitizer at polling places. And elections officials have encouraged voters to take advantage of early- and absentee-voting options.
But the impact of the coronavirus on primary elections extends well beyond today. In addition to Ohio, four other presidential primaries have already been postponed:
- Louisiana was the first state to delay its primary, doing so Thursday. Its primary was originally scheduled for April 4, and normally, changing the primary date would require an act of the state legislature. However, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Gov. John Bel Edwards made the change themselves, citing a state law that allows them to move elections in emergency situations. The Louisiana primary is now slated for June 20, but the late date presents a bit of a conundrum: The new date is almost two weeks after the last possible date allowed by the Democratic National Committee (June 9). The DNC told ABC News it will “continue to work with every state party as they adjust their delegate selection plans around coronavirus,” but that “any violation of our rules could result in a penalty that would include a state losing at least half of its delegates.” The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee is still reviewing Louisiana’s change.
- In Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Saturday he will delay the state’s primary from March 24 to May 19. May 19 was already the primary day for Georgia’s down-ballot offices like U.S. senator and representative, so the two elections will simply now be consolidated. The more than 275,000 ballots that have already been cast in the presidential primary (due to early voting) will still count; those voters will have the option of casting a ballot in May that includes all races except the presidential race.
- Kentucky also announced Monday that it would postpone its primary for both president and down-ballot offices, which had been scheduled for May 19. Kentucky’s primary is now set to be the last on the calendar: June 23. In addition to running afoul of the same DNC rules as Louisiana, this new date is less than three weeks before the start of the Democratic National Convention, which could pose logistical challenges.
- Finally, the Maryland primary has officially moved from April 28 to June 2. Under Maryland’s current state of emergency, Gov. Larry Hogan had the power to postpone elections without legislative approval, which he did by proclamation Tuesday morning. Hogan also gave the Maryland State Board of Elections a deadline of April 3 to develop a plan to conduct the election in a safe manner.
Other states are also considering whether to postpone their primaries, but it could be a longer process: Of the states that have not yet voted or already postponed their primaries, only Oregon grants its governor the emergency authority to move elections. Otherwise, the authority to reschedule elections falls to state legislatures — and at least one jurisdiction has already begun that process. The Puerto Rico Senate passed a bill Monday that would move the commonwealth’s primary election from March 29 to April 26. The territorial House and governor still have to sign off, but there appears to be little opposition to the change, which was requested by the local Democratic Party president and endorsed by the commonwealth’s head of elections.
If Puerto Rico successfully reschedules, the Democratic primary calendar for the next six weeks would be pretty bare. After today’s contests, only four primaries would be held before the next big election day on April 28, and only one — Wisconsin on April 7 — would be conducted predominantly in person. For now, Wisconsin is expected to keep that election date in place, although that could always change.
As for the other three upcoming primaries, two (Alaska and Hawaii) were always going to be conducted primarily by mail. And last week in Wyoming, the state party canceled the in-person component of the Wyoming caucuses, making that contest effectively a vote-by-mail primary as well. (Every registered Democrat in Wyoming was already being mailed a ballot, which they could mail back or drop off at a predesignated location. But there will no longer be an option to assemble at local gymnasiums, form groups and try to persuade neighbors as in a traditional caucus.)
Voting by mail could be an increasingly appealing option for states going forward, too, if the coronavirus spreads further and deters in-person voting. For instance, Maryland is scheduled to hold a special election in the 7th Congressional District on April 28 that is not being postponed, but Hogan is directing election officials to conduct it entirely by mail. And Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, one of five states that already votes by mail under normal circumstances, has introduced a bill that would implement vote-by-mail nationwide if at least 25 percent of states declare a coronavirus-related emergency. The bill would earmark $500 million to help states prepare.
With so much up in the air because of the coronavirus pandemic, many people have wondered aloud if the general election is also in danger of being delayed. However, legally speaking, moving the Nov. 3 election would be an enormously difficult undertaking. That date (the Tuesday after the first Monday in November) is set by federal law and would require an act of Congress to move (meaning President Trump cannot use executive authority to change it). In addition, under the Constitution, a new Congress must be sworn in on Jan. 3, and the president’s term must end at noon on Jan. 20, so the 2020 election must take place by the end of, well, 2020. Hopefully, of course, this will be a moot point and the general election will be able to proceed safely as planned.
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