At The Mercy Of The Unpredictable Coronavirus, States Gird For June Primaries

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June 2 has become a late-breaking major voting day for the 2020 primary calendar, after six states pushed back their elections amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have now joined Washington D.C., Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota in holding primaries on that day. 

But the ongoing coronavirus crisis, which prompted the delays, looms large over that early summer date. Whether the worst will be past in the ten states and D.C. — and whether it will be safe to gather — remains an open question.

Get Out The Vote?

“A lot will depend on how strictly social distancing guidelines are followed and how much can be done to strengthen the healthcare system and flatten the peak of the epidemic,” Leana Wen, emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, told TPM.

“There may also be regional variation,” she said. “It’s possible that some states may be ready for some form of in-person voting while others may not.”

All of the states are offering some in-person voting. A few are expanding their vote-by-mail options, but most are not. And though the states delayed their contests hoping to skirt the risk posed by an unpredictable pandemic that makes in-person gatherings ill-advised, the virus is operating on an undetermined timeline.

Experts are worried what an election in the time of coronavirus will mean — both from a public health standpoint, and an electoral one. If the disease is still lingering by then, turnout may plummet as risk-averse voters opt to stay home.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, told TPM. “I don’t think by any means that it’s likely we’ll be done with coronavirus by June.” 

The June 2 date was in part chosen to keeps states within a deadline for delegate-counting set by the Democratic National Committee. Under current rules, any state that holds its primary after June 9 risks losing half of its delegates to the convention. In total, 686 delegates will be up for the taking. 

But under the extraordinary circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic, the DNC may ultimately ease up on the punishment. DNC Communications Director Xochitl Hinojosa told TPM that the Rules and Bylaws Committee planned to meet and contemplate what to do if any state pushed its election past that deadline. 

“We will continue to monitor the situation and work with state parties around their delegate selection plans, and if states move beyond the June 9th window stated in our rules, the Rules and Bylaws Committee will meet to discuss and determine next steps,” Hinojosa said.

Some states have already blown that deadline. Louisiana pushed its primary to June 20, and Kentucky and New York rescheduled for June 23. Hinojosa did not comment on when DNC officials would meet to reconsider delegate rules. 

Difficulty Of Vote By Mail

The bulk of the June 2 states — but not all — are operating their primaries without substantially expanding vote-by-mail with coronavirus-specific provisions. Many are urging voters towards their absentee ballot systems, but all are maintaining some form of in-person voting as well.

Catherine Sheehan of Delaware’s Office of the State Election Commissioner told TPM that while the state does not have “no-excuse absentee voting” — which would allow any voter to vote absentee no matter their reasoning — even voters “asymptomatic of COVID-19 infection” can check off the option to obtain a mail-in ballot due to illness or temporary or permanent disability. 

“There will be regular in-person voting for the presidential primary election on June 2, 2020,” she added.

Some states, like Maryland and New Jersey, are making their down-ballot elections vote-by-mail only, including the congressional race for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’ (D-MD) seat in the former and local elections in the latter. But their presidential primaries, potentially much larger races, will still have in-person voting.

Switching to an entirely vote-by-mail election is expensive and labor intensive, and likely impossible for many states to pull off in such a short window, experts told TPM.

“I want to stress that we have different states in very different places when it comes to mail-in systems,” said John Fortier, director of Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project. “Even Oregon, the first state to do all-vote by mail, did it gradually over time, offering mail options more until more people took it up.”

Barry Burden, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Elections Research Center, agreed.

“Jumping to an all-mail election is more difficult than it initially appears and few states are well positioned to make the transition even by early June,” he told TPM. “The challenges are significant enough that some policy makers may have decided to push the primary down the road and hope that time and changing situation make a later election less problematic.”

A Grim Prognosis

But whether it will be safe to gather by June 2 remains a lingering question, and one that may have a different answer from state to state. “I wouldn’t be surprised if states push their primaries back further,” Fortier said.

One epidemiological model, from the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, estimates when each state’s coronavirus outbreak will peak. Happily, the model (which has received some criticism for being too optimistic) shows the peak in all of the June 2 primary states coming before the rescheduled election.

But they’re still not out of the woods. Even some later-peaking states, like South Dakota and New Mexico, would still be dealing with a large number of coronavirus cases at the times the polls open, even as infection rates fall.

Given that bleak reality, Rosenberg of the Center for Science and Democracy said that states should do all in their power to allow no-excuse absentee voting, extend the times that polling places are open to avoid crowds and encourage recruitment of younger poll workers. Some of these reforms, he added, may well be necessary for November’s general election as well.

“It’s a good time to institute these measures that we’ll probably need to do for the November election to ensure that if there’s another flare-up with the virus, we can still hold the election,” Rosenberg said.

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