Delayed Primaries Involve More Than Just Choosing A New Date on the Calendar

March 25, 2020 by Dan McCue
A voter makes her choice during the Democratic Presidential primary voting Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

WASHINGTON – As of this week, eight states – Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio and Rhode Island – and one territory – Puerto Rico – have postponed their presidential primary elections due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Additionally, three states – Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina – have postponed specific congressional elections.

While for most of us these changes represent new marks on the pages of our calendars, state officials say announcing a new primary date is the easy part.

Behind the scenes, they say, is a much more difficult task of navigating unique state laws, election structures and other considerations while they confront a hidden enemy — the virus itself — and endeavor to hold an election in which voter safety is a top priority.

And if there’s one phrase heard time and again from these officials, it’s that the best solutions when an election coincides with a public health crisis are far from clear.

A Bipartisan Decision

In Kentucky, moving the state’s presidential preference primary from May 19 to June 23, was a bipartisan decision undertaken by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and the Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams.

“Postponing the primary was not an easy decision, but these are unprecedented times,” Adams told The Well News.

“My hope is that this delay will allow us to have a normal election,” he added.

But Adams quickly acknowledged simply moving the election isn’t, by itself, a solution.

“It might be, if things get better in terms of the pandemic, but what if they don’t, that’s the uncertainty all of us are facing right now,” Adams said.

“In light of that, as someone overseeing elections, you have to look at moving the primary date as something more than simply kicking the can down the road. You have to see it as a way of giving yourself time to prepare for things, like deploying another method of voting … for example, expanded absentee voting,” he said.

The biggest challenge for election officials across the country is they have essentially been forced by circumstance to play a game whose rules change as they play.

In practical terms that means they are trying to come up with a sound policy while monitoring a still evolving situation.

Right now, many sites traditionally used as polling places — nursing homes, for instance — are simply unusable for that purpose given that aged and vulnerable populations are most susceptible to the virus.

In addition there’s the question of carrying out in-person voting in the age of social distancing. Will such distancing be necessary in early June, when most of the postponed elections have been scheduled? No one knows.

If social distancing is still recommended at that time, election officials will have to find polling places large enough to accommodate the extra space between voters, and that, Adams said, could also force them to close polling places that are more restrictive in size.

“It could be things ease up and we have a normal primary election in June,” Adams said. “If it doesn’t … we’ll come up with the best answer out of, potentially, several less than perfect answers.”

“What I can say is that we are not in a position yet to make those decisions. It’ll probably be a few weeks before we are … but at this point, there are no easy answers,” he said.

Seeking Looser Absentee Ballot Rules

In Connecticut, where the primary has been moved from April 28 to June 2, Gabe Rosenberg, spokesman for Secretary of State Denise Merrill, said uncertainties about next steps abound.

“That was the reason for the change,” Rosenberg said. “We were concerned that we might still be in the middle of the crisis on April 28, knowing, at the same time, that June 2 might be as well. That said, the later date provides our poll workers and local election officials with more time to prepare.”

Connecticut is one of nine states that has neither early voting nor no-excuse absentee ballot regulations.

It is also unique in that instead of having its elections run by its counties, the responsibility falls to its 169 small towns, each of which has its own election officials, a reality that makes extensive coordination key in a crisis.

As a first step toward simplifying the situation, Merrill has asked Gov. Ned LaMont to sign an executive order that would make it easier for Connecticut voters to cast absentee ballots.

According to Rosenberg, there were two reasons for this: Connecticut’s population skews a bit older than other states, and the state also has some of the most restrictive absentee ballot rules in the country.

“Whether that request is granted or not, one thing we do know is that a lot more absentee ballots are going to be cast this year than in years past, and the cost associated with them is unknown,” he said.

In Connecticut the towns do have discretion to cut election-related costs, the most likely being to assign poll workers multiple tasks, but ideally what Merrill would like to see is an expansion of absentee voting to reduce stress at the polls.

It is a cause Merrill has been championing for nearly a decade.

“They don’t call Connecticut the land of steady habits for nothing,” Rosenberg said. “It’s difficult to get people to change here.”

He went on to explain that implementing no-excuse absentee balloting would require a change to the state constitution by the legislature, which has long been reluctant to do so.

“Could this coronavirus outbreak be the wakeup call? Maybe,” Rosenberg said. “But right now, we just don’t know.

Mail-In Voting, Not So Easy

While there has been a call in some quarters for a switch to mail-in voting, Adams said it’s just not possible in a state like Kentucky in the near term.

“The situation you have here is we are not a paper ballot state in the first place,” he explained. “A lot of our counties vote on electronic voting machines. So we can’t just flip a switch and suddenly have all the specific scanners we’d need for paper mail-in ballots. It’s a long transition process.

“To get to a 100% mail-in ballot situation, you’ve got to decide on a ballot, and then the right machine to count that ballot. Then you’ve got to determine the appropriate thickness of the envelope you’d need to assure the secrecy of the voters’ ballots,” he said. “There are just logistics that we are obviously not prepared to address at this time.”

On top of this, Adams said, a preliminary assessment found that a semi-automated system for reading mail-in ballots — having local officials run returned ballots through scanners — could extend uncertainty over the outcome of an election for weeks.

“So right there, that’s not the best option. But we are looking at lots of options,” he said.

The Cost Factor

Adams said that in theory, shifting the date of Kentucky’s primary shouldn’t substantially increase the cost of holding the election. “Typically, it costs about $10 million for Kentucky to hold an election … and that’s fairly static,” he said.

“Now, if we have increased postal costs associated with expanded absentee or mail-in voting, and need to invest in machines to process those votes, that could increase the cost of an election substantially,” Adams said.

As it happens, the Kentucky legislature is still in session and is currently working on the state’s next two-year budget, which is set to go into effect on July 1.

“Obviously, they’re monitoring this election situation and assessing what additional funds may be necessary,” Adams said.

“What we want to avoid at the end of the day is the situation we’ve seen in other states where government officials are tugging in different directions. We want to avoid the situation that you saw in a neighboring state (Ohio), where the governor and secretary of state were on one side and a judge was on the other, in a battle to decide whether to close the polls or keep them open,” he said.”That situation, unfortunately, seeped into primary day itself, and you had voters not knowing whether it was election day or not.” 

Speaking of Ohio, Maggie Sheehan, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Frank LaRose, said in an email to The Well News that “right now, our focus is on completing Ohio’s primary election” and that legislation, The Ohio Voters First Act,has been introduced to institute voting-by-mail to make that happen.

In a letter sent to the Ohio General Assembly on Saturday, LaRose said the Act, which is backed by Gov. Mike DeWine, is “a path forward to complete this election as quickly as possible that will simultaneously protect public safety and ensure every eligible Ohio voter has the opportunity to have their voice heard.”

The legislation authorizes LaRose to produce and mail a postage paid absentee ballot request form to every eligible Ohio voter who did not cast a ballot during Ohio’s early voting period; to pay the postage for the voter to return their ballot; and to hold in-person voting on June 2.

LaRose goes on to tell the lawmakers that despite public speculation, June 2 is the earliest date the primary can be held “due to the logistical realities of conducting a vote-by-mail election and the ever-evolving health realities of protecting against the spread of coronavirus.”

He also said the date would allow the state to assign delegates for the Democratic National Convention in a timely fashion.

“We know that eight other states have a primary scheduled for June 2 and each of those states will have time to get their delegates seated for the convention,” he said.

What of November?

While most credible sources predict the coronavirus outbreak will subside by summer, some have suggested the outbreak and the economic recovery from it might be reason enough to postpone the November general election.

Kentucky’s Adams again said this is a lot easier said than done.

“That’s because, in my case, I’m constrained from delaying a general election by Kentucky state law,” he said.

“So even if Congress moved the date of the federal balloting, it’s not clear that I’d have the ability to move all of our voting to the new date,” Adams said. “The date for our state elections is set by the state constitution, so you don’t have the option of kicking the can down the road. You’d literally have to amend the state constitution to change the date of those contests.”

He went on to say one advantage of the delayed primary is it will give Kentucky a test case for seeing how expanded absentee balloting might work in the state.

If successful — all this being hypothetical, of course — and if the pandemic were to stretch for months, Adams said he could foresee a scenario in which the governor calls a special legislative session to pass enabling legislation for a dramatic change to the state election law. State elections aside, Adams said other problems would quickly arise if all you were doing was moving the date of the federal elections.

“You’d run up against a number of federal deadlines, including when the Electoral College meets and, of course, setting a new inauguration day,” he explained. “While it’s way too soon to project what November will look like, it’s a much harder situation to resolve than simply moving a primary.”

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