The Democratic Party, like every major institution in America, is scrambling to respond to the unprecedented threat the covid-19 pandemic poses to rituals and routines. The party really wants to give its voters a nominee who is competent, experienced, left of center and appears presidential through a crisis. But like so much of public life, their process for picking that nominee seems to be breaking down. Candidates aren’t holding big arena rallies. Debates don’t have live audiences. And five states — Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland and Kentucky — have already delayed or extended primary voting to avoid packing large groups of potentially infectious voters into cramped civic spaces.

In the midst of this chaos, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would do public health and the party he has twice aspired to lead a big favor by acknowledging reality and leaving the race now. By officially making former vice president Joe Biden the presumptive nominee, Sanders would free Democrats able to make more rational decisions about how and when to hold their contests, and could free voters from making an impossible choice between casting their ballots and safeguarding their health.

Biden is about as close to the nomination as someone can get without officially clinching it. He’s opened a sizable delegate lead over Sanders, his only real competitor. He’s won contests in every region: Michigan in the Midwest, Massachusetts and Maine in the northeast, Idaho in the west, and every single state in the Southeast. And he has solid support from almost every major constituency in the party. National polls show him ahead of Sanders by roughly 20 points with the broader party, and Sanders seemed unable to move the needle in the last debate.

This primary isn’t stretching out because it’s competitive, it’s stretching out because the Democratic delegate rules are rewarding Sanders’s persistence. Democratic rules are proportional, so if Biden wins a state by a wide margin, say 60 percent to 40 percent, he only gets 60 percent of the delegates and Sanders gets 40 percent.

Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias says states and Congress need to act now to ensure all votes count during the general election. These changes are overdue. (The Washington Post)

There’s some intuitive fairness to this system, which allows important constituencies in the party to make their power felt even if their standard-bearer can’t capture the nomination. But it’s also slow and easy to game. In 2016, Hillary Clinton quickly built the stronger coalition and amassed a nearly insurmountable delegate lead, but proportional rules allowed Sanders to stick around, slow her pace to the nomination and create the illusion of a close contest. And, in 2020, he’s doing the same thing to Biden.

The current media narrative puts state leaders in a tough spot: They want to protect citizens from a dangerous disease, but they also want to let the people vote in a genuinely important election. If Democratic voters, politicians and media figures admitted that Biden has essentially won, decision-makers might feel less political pressure around these choices.

Sanders could do more than anyone to relieve this pressure. He’s smart and politically savvy, and he must know that he’s lost the nomination. His recent remarks suggest that he’s fundamentally staying in the race to push Biden to the left. But Sanders may have already done all he can for the cause of democratic socialism in this primary. He’s moved the Democratic Party as a whole left on health care and a host of economic issues, but he’s probably not going to convince Biden to support Medicare-for-all by losing a long string of primaries by an average of 20 points. He can still continue his work in the Senate and help key staffers get jobs on other Democratic campaigns.

If Sanders dropped out, state and party leaders could more easily make the right choice for their state whether that’s a delay, a new emphasis on absentee ballot and vote by mail, or something else. These changes aren’t without consequence — politicians could use the precedents set now to willfully impede elections in the future — but finishing up this particular horse race would have an immediate impact. Public health matters now more than ever, and we could better deal with this crisis if we stopped pretending this primary was still competitive.

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