vision 2020

What to Expect in the March 17 Presidential Primaries

An early voter in Ohio carefully casting a ballot. Photo: Aaron Doster/AP/Shutterstock

The Democratic presidential primaries scheduled for Tuesday, March 17, have been overshadowed by two sweeping developments. The first was Joe Biden’s surge into what many consider a virtually insurmountable lead over Bernie Sanders in a (suddenly) two-candidate race. The second is a COVID-19 pandemic that has driven the presidential contest out of the headlines and into the back of the minds (at best) of most Americans and that has made showing up at the polls one of many activities deemed potentially perilous to one’s health and life.

Arizona, Florida, and Illinois will vote on March 17, and the balloting is the first since the coronavirus crisis really exploded into a national phenomenon, forcing even Donald Trump out of denial. Four later states in the primary calendar (Louisiana , Georgia, Kentucky and Maryland) have already delayed their presidential nominating contests, and initially it was thought it was really too late for the March 17 states to put off voting. But Ohio, amidst legal chaos, appears to have postponed its schedule March 17 primary indefinitely. All four of these states, significantly, have no-excuse absentee balloting available, along with in-person early-voting opportunities that might reduce crowded conditions on election day. But election officials in all four are acutely aware that they will be in the spotlight as voters do or don’t vote, as USA Today reports:

Officials from all four states said they are taking extra precautions to keep voting machines sanitized and will post guidance from local health officials at voting locations.

Arizona Secretary of State Kathy Hobbs, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Illinois Elections Board Chairman Charles Scholz and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in a joint statement last week that they are working closely “with our state health officials to ensure that our poll workers and voters can be confident that voting is safe.”

It’s been such a strain that Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (with the agreement of both major-party state chairs) supported a last-minute lawsuit aimed at delaying the primary until June 2. That would affect not only the presidential primary but U.S. House and state primaries being held simultaneously (there are no Senate or gubernatorial primaries in Ohio this year). Late on March 16, a state judge in Columbus rejected the suit — which would normally mean that the primary will proceed as scheduled. However, Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton ordered the polls closed as a health emergency shortly after the judge’s decision, and the Ohio Supreme Court summarily dismissed a challenge to the closure of voting places. As of this morning, the primary is off, though it’s unclear when voting will resume.

Even prior to the tussle in the courts, Ohio was driven to some really unusual measures

[T]he state is going to offer curbside voting at polling locations for those concerned about going inside to vote. Voters who opt to vote in person and stand in line must be spaced at least 4 feet apart and voting machines must be spread apart “as much as possible within the polling location,” under the new directive.

Arizona is a heavy vote-by-mail state, providing voters the option of permanently registering to automatically receive mail ballots, and upwards of 80 percent choose to vote remotely. This should shield that state from the worst Primary Day fears (and crowds). In Florida, 632,000 registered Democrats have already voted by mail for the March 17 primary (compared to a total of 520,000 in 2016), with another 487,000 ballots still out there. Another 438,000 have already voted in person (compared to a total of 369,000 in 2016). Total Democratic voting four years ago was 1.69 million, so it looks like early voting is going to be robust this time around.

In Illinois, the deadline for requesting mail ballots has been extended (though ballots must be received by Primary Day, by mail or drop-box), and in Chicago, at least, requests for mail ballots have tripled as compared to 2016, and total early voting has occurred at record levels. That’s good, because polling places are shrinking owing to poll-worker shortages and the closure of some precincts in or near particularly vulnerable elements of the electorate (e.g., senior residential facilities).

Like Ohio, Illinois is holding its regular non-presidential primary in tandem with the presidential event. The marquee race from a national point of view is in Chicago’s Third Congressional District, where longtime incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski faces a rematch from progressive challenger Marie Newman, who nearly toppled the anti-abortion-rights, anti-Obamacare congressman two years ago. This is a safe Democratic district no matter who wins the primary.

As for the presidential primary that has been cast in the shade by the circumstances surrounding it, Biden is the betting favorite in all four states. In the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Uncle Joe leads Bernie Sanders by 18 points in Arizona, 22.5 points in Ohio, 29.5 percent in Illinois, and 39 points in Florida. FiveThirtyEight gives Biden better than a 99 percent chance of winning Illinois and Florida, and a 98 percent chance of winning in Arizona and Ohio. If there’s any uncertainty at all about what’s going to happen, it’s the remote possibility that just enough Biden-supporting old folks will stay home that Sanders’s youth brigades can pull of an upset–though again, relatively heavy early voting in these states reduces that possibility. Another marginal factor is that Sanders’s strength among independents will be of variable value on March 17: Arizona and Florida have closed primaries, in which indies cannot participate at all, while Illinois and Ohio have no party registration but do require that voters request a particular party’s primary ballot.

Don’t expect the results to command much attention beyond the ranks of the most stubbornly addicted of political junkies.

This post has been updated.

What to Expect in the March 17 Presidential Primaries