vision 2020

Primaries Continue to Melt Away During Pandemic

Voting by mail is saving some primaries and caucuses. Photo: Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, states scheduled to hold primary elections (presidential, state and local, or both) in the near future continue to rethink plans that involve widespread voting in person. Ohio postponed its March 17 primary until June 2 on the very eve of Election Day. On March 14, with early voting already well underway, the scheduled March 24 presidential contest in Georgia was postponed until the state’s regular May 19 primary for other offices. The jurisdiction next up on the original calendar, Puerto Rico, has just moved its March 29 primary to April 26 (with provisions for a further delay then if conditions warrant it).

Louisiana earlier moved its April 4 presidential primary to June 20. The other three states planning presidential contests for April 4 are (so far) moving ahead, but will offer universal voting by mail. Hawaii recently became the fifth state to move to an all-mail-ballot system for primaries and for general elections. Alaska’s Democrats (who are holding a party-run “firehouse primary,” the name derived from the usual practice of limiting polling places to inexpensive public facilities like firehouses) sent mail ballots to every registered Democratic voter. And Democrats in Wyoming, the last state on the calendar to hold a party caucus, have decided to cancel the in-person portion of their event, with all balloting to be done by mail.

The state that seems to be struggling most with an upcoming primary is Wisconsin, due to vote on April 7. The presidential contest there is combined with local and judicial offices, and the date is fixed by state law (there’s disagreement concerning the governor’s public-health powers when it comes to elections). And while Wisconsin does not require an excuse for voting by mail, voters must proactively request an absentee ballot. Calls for a delay in the primary are proliferating (even as early voting in person and by mail has begun), but a Democratic governor and Republican legislature will need to agree on a later date.

April 28 was originally supposed to be the date of a semi-regional primary, with six northeastern states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) holding presidential nominating contests. Three of those states (Maryland, Connecticut, and most recently Pennsylvania) have already moved their contests to June 2. This date is rapidly becoming a Super Tuesday of its own, with nine states and the District of Columbia already scheduled for that day, just a week before the Democratic National Committee’s deadline for holding primaries. Two states (Louisiana and Kentucky) have actually moved primaries past that date (to June 20 and June 23, respectively) despite the risk of DNC sanctions to reduce their delegations to the national convention. And now officials in New York are talking about June 23 — already the date for non-presidential primaries in the Empire State — for its presidential contest. With the presidential nomination all but decided, and plans for the national convention already in some doubt, worries about DNC sanctions for delayed primaries are on a far back burner, in New York and elsewhere.

Primaries Continue to Melt Away During Pandemic