Voting With a Virus Leads to Primaries Delayed, Mail-in Ballots

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More than a dozen states set to hold primaries in the coming weeks are looking to reschedule or push more use of mail-in ballots to reduce the risk of coronavirus being transmitted at the polls.

Delays in presidential primaries could make it harder for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to score even symbolic victories against the Democratic frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, particularly if the pandemic continues to keep the candidates off the campaign trail.

Wisconsin, where Sanders scored a 13.5-percentage-point victory in the 2016 Democratic contest, provides him an opportunity to make a last stand in its April 7 primary, should he decide to stay in the race after Tuesday’s losses in Illinois, Florida and Arizona.

The state’s primary is still scheduled to take place that day, though an election commission spokesman said he wouldn’t predict what ultimately will happen.

“This is rapidly evolving,’’ Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said in a telephone interview. “I would not want to predict what will end up happening.”

Sanders’ campaign manager said Wednesday the senator is speaking with supporters to “assess his campaign” moving forward.

(Photo by Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg)
Voter casts a ballot early in a polling station in Dayton, Ohio. Gov. Mike DeWine invoked a health emergency to close the polls in the state’s primary on Tuesday. The election was moved to June 2.

More than half a dozen states with primaries in March, April and May had moved contests as of Tuesday afternoon.

  • Maryland will vote for presidential and congressional nominees on June 2, rather than April 28, with the exception of the 7th District, which will still hold a special election next month to fill the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’ Baltimore seat. The vote will be done primarily through mail, said Mike Ricci, communications director for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
  • Georgia moved its presidential primary from March 24 to May 19, the day it already scheduled its congressional primary.
  • Louisiana rescheduled its April 4 presidential primary to June 20.
  • Rhode Island’s presidential primary is scheduled for June 2, rather than April 28.
  • Kentucky moved its May 19 congressional and presidential primaries to June 23.
  • Ohio’s congressional and presidential primary was set for Tuesday, but state officials announced late Monday night it would be moved to June 2. Gov. Mike DeWine (R) tweeted that state officials “will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity.”
  • Alabama has rescheduled a Senate Republican primary runoff to July 14 from March 31. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is running against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. The winner will face Sen. Doug Jones (D) .

Mailing it in

Some state officials are turning to mail-in ballots to keep primaries on time. Wyoming’s Democratic Party canceled the in-person voting component of its April 4 presidential preference caucus, though party voters can mail ballots by that date, according to a statement from Democratic Chairman Joe Barbuto.

Wisconsin and and Idaho are strongly urging voters to use mail-in ballots. Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary occurs on the same day as voters are scheduled to also cast ballots in non-partisan contests for thousands of local offices and pick a Supreme Court justice.

“At this point we are encouraging everyone to vote absentee,” Magney said.

The commission had received 173,000 mailed requests for absentee ballots, fueled by concern about the pandemic, according to a statement posted Tuesday.

Idaho’s secretary of state will send voters a form to request a mail-in ballot for the May 19 congressional primaries, said Chad Houck, chief deputy secretary of state. The multi-step process is in place to prevent a large number of unused ballots circulating in the state.

There are at least two states where officials won’t need to make big changes. Oregon has had vote-by-mail elections for more than 20 years. Its May 19 congressional and presidential primaries will continue as scheduled, said Andrea Chiapella, legislative and communications director for the Oregon secretary of state.

The Kansas Democratic Party began planning a year ago to mail a ballot to all voters registered with the party before the May 2 presidential primary date.

Wait and See

Several state officials with upcoming primaries said they were still monitoring the situation. Pennsylvania, which holds the next congressional primary contests, still plans to hold its election on April 28.

West Virginia officials “will continue coordinating with federal and local health officials and will work with the county clerks to implement any appropriate safeguards to minimize the risk for voters and election workers,” according to a March 13 announcement on the secretary of state’s website. The state’s primary is scheduled for May 12.

In Nebraska, which also is scheduled to hold its primary on May 12, state officials have made no decisions about postponing the voting, said Assistant Secretary of State Cindi Allen. The decision will ultimately be made by the governor, who is dealing with more immediately pressing issues such as school closings and large gatherings, she said.

“It’s not a real active discussion” because “May 12 is kind of down the line, so we haven’t been in earnest having that discussion.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com; James Rowley in Washington at jrowley@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com

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