The far-reaching coronavirus pandemic has thrusted the 2020 campaign into uncharted territory, forcing election officials to choose between upending the primary calendar or forging ahead with in-person voting amid urgent calls for “social distancing.”
In the course of a week, up to seven states and one territory have postponed their presidential primaries so far, and more are expected to follow, amid anxiety over the coronavirus outbreak. Election officials are seeking to minimize the health risks associated with COVID-19 either by moving contests or implementing alternative tactics to in-person voting.
On Friday, Indiana became the seventh state to reschedule its presidential primary, after Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb announced that after reaching an agreement with the chairs of the respective state parties, Indiana’s primary was moving from May 5 to June 2.
“The right of citizens to elect their leaders in an election is one of the cornerstones of America. In order to balance that right with the safety of county employees, poll workers and voters, delaying Indiana’s primary election is the right move to protect Hoosiers’ health,” the governor said in a statement.
The Hoosier state joins Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, and Puerto Rico, which are all no longer planning to hold their primaries on the original dates that were set and approved by the Democratic National Committee.
In most of the states, election officials overseeing the contests have officially announced a new date, while a couple others remain in flux with bills and lawsuits still being worked out.
The fate of Ohio’s last-minute suspended primary is set to be taken up by the state legislature.
After Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the polls closed late Monday, on the eve of Tuesday’s previously scheduled primary, the state’s Democratic Party sued Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose earlier this week over setting the new primary date on June 2, which they argue is not within in his purview, but instead falls under the state legislature’s domain.
On Tuesday, Ohio State House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, circulated a letter to his members, urging a special session to set a new date for the state’s in-person primary day. The Ohio legislature will meet next week to take up a number of issues related to the coronavirus.
In Puerto Rico, after the General Assembly approved a resolution to formally move their primary to late April, with a contingency allowing the Democratic Party chairman and the president of the Puerto Rico State Commission on Elections to change the date again if needed, the legislation is waiting on the governor’s signature. The governor has indicated she will sign the bill as soon when it reaches her desk, according to Puerto Rico’s Democratic party.
Among the states that have moved their primaries, at least four are currently set to now take place on June 2, setting up one of the most delegate-rich nights of the entire Democratic primary season – with 589 delegates now up for grabs. That delegate prize is now only second to Super Tuesday, when 1,344 delegates were awarded to the Democratic field.
More states are likely to follow suit with these seven in the coming days and weeks.
The Rhode Island state Board of Elections voted to ask Gov. Gina Raimondo to move the primary from April 28 to June 2 – but Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s told ABC News that she is in conversations with the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Board of Elections and local boards of canvassers to ensure a safe and efficient Presidential Preference Primary on April 28, while encouraging voters to cast their ballot by mail.
In New York and Pennsylvania, election officials are assessing the situation, but in Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s office did not return a request for comment on the status of the primary.
While there is a bit of a lull in primary voting over the next few weeks, the next slate of contests in the Democratic primary are set for April 4 in Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming. While none of these states have indicated they will postpone, they are implementing changes to they will be conducted to address coronavirus concerns.
Wyoming cancelled the in-person caucuses, and is relying instead on vote-by-mail and ballots drop-offs, and in Alaska and Hawaii mail ballots were sent to all registered Democratic voters.
On April 7, Wisconsin, one of the key 2020 battlegrounds that could define November’s general election, is currently moving forward as planned. Earlier this week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said that rescheduling the primary is not on the table “at this time” and that the governor’s office is “evaluating this as it goes forward. We’re hoping to hold it on the date if we possibly can.”
The next biggest night for delegates lands on April 28, known as the Acela primary, when Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island are currently slated to head to the polls, at least for now.
But national Democrats are imploring states that have not yet voted to push for early and mail-in voting, in lieu of pushing back primaries.
“As our country deals with the uncertainty of COVID-19, it is critical that states provide clarity and not confusion, which could lead to disenfranchising voters. In order to ensure the voices of voters are heard, the DNC is urging the remaining primary states to use a variety of other critical mechanisms that will make voting easier and safer for voters and election officials alike. The simplest tool is vote by mail, which is already in use in a number of states and should be made available to all registered voters,” DNC chair Tom Perez said in a statement on Tuesday.
“That’s why states that have not yet held primary elections should focus on implementing the aforementioned measures to make it easier and safer for voters to exercise their constitutional right to vote, instead of moving primaries to later in the cycle when timing around the virus remains unpredictable,” he added.
President Trump, too, said on Monday that while the decision to hold elections stays with each state for now, it is “unnecessary” to move the primaries.
“I would leave that up to the states,” Trump said during his daily briefing from the White House. “I think postponing election is a very tough thing. I know that they have been in touch with us, and they are doing it very carefully…I think postponing elections is not a very good thing…I think postponing is unnecessary.”
But for two states, who have delayed their primaries outside of the DNC’s window for voting to take place, which falls on June 9, Kentucky and Louisiana face another wrinkle.
While the DNC is seeking to be “flexible” as they work with the state parties to adjust to a new normal, in a new memo, obtained by ABC News, from the DNC’s rules committee suggests that any state that violates the “rule on timing, or any other rule” could face a penalty that includes “at least a 50% reduction in delegates, which will need to be reviewed” – potentially further disrupting the electoral system.
ABC News’ Alisa Wiersema, Meg Cunningham and Quinn Scanlan contributed to this report.