These days, no one is encouraging the public to leave their houses and stand in long lines. On Friday, Louisiana’s governor signed an executive order postponing the state’s April 4 primary election to June 20, out of concerns regarding the coronavirus. Georgia election officials decided over the weekend to postpone their March 24 primary to May 19. On Tuesday, Maryland moved its April 28 primary to June 2. At the last minute, just hours before the polls were due to open, justices on Ohio’s Supreme Court approved that state’s plan to declare a public health emergency and postpone its primary to June.
People shouldn’t be expected to put their lives in danger to keep democracy running, and state leaders are probably trying to protect both public health and democracy. But such actions set a dangerous precedent — one that could be exploited in upcoming elections.
Delays in elections are incredibly rare in the United States, and generally used only when holding an election is impossible, not just difficult. New York City was actually holding a primary election on the day of the 9/11 attacks, and postponed its election by a few weeks; in 2017, Hurricane Irma forced delays in local elections in Florida. These were unusual crises, making it more or less impossible to administer an election — and even if the contests had taken place, the results would have lacked legitimacy. That’s not the case with the current pandemic, even as it’s very serious. The coronavirus may affect participation in, and the outcome of, the election — but it does not preclude its administration.
Regular, scheduled elections are a long-standing democratic norm, one that has been honored even during wars and insurrections. In the midst of the Civil War, when some suggested that the 1864 election be postponed, President Lincoln famously replied that, “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
Though President Trump has said he thinks these primary delays are unnecessary, he has also casually suggested he might serve beyond the Constitution’s two-term limit and repeatedly suggested he would not accept the results of the presidential election if he lost, showing little reverence for democratic norms. The possibility that he might seek to postpone an election that he worries he might lose hardly seems out of his character. The president, unlike state officials, can’t just change the date of federal elections by executive order; that date is set by law and can be changed only by both houses of Congress passing a new law and the president signing it. But Trump might well attempt it anyway, especially as the Republican Party and conservative media have demonstrated a willingness to go along with, and defend, many of his norm violations. Even if he can’t postpone the election, he might start complaining that the election is unfair and illegitimate, since it was held in the middle of crisis. Such claims, if he lost, would taint the election and the administration of his successor. And he’d be pointing to the examples of Louisiana, Georgia and other states the whole time.
While it’s true that five state Republican parties last year decided to disband their primaries and caucuses for 2020, pledging their national convention delegates to Trump automatically, that is a different and defensible situation. Parties can choose how they wish to decide on a nominee — whether that’s a primary, a caucus or a determination by some central committee. Parties have that power, as long as their members tolerate it. But it’s different when the state government gets involved — and when a number of other elections, in addition to the choice of party nominee, gets postponed (as is the case in Louisiana). Elections are our democracy’s means for ensuring that government is accountable to the people — and if the government can postpone them, it’s undermining its own accountability.
Now, what could states have done instead? Some states with primaries Tuesday — Arizona, Florida and Illinois — committed to holding their contests as scheduled and providing some remedies, including expanding early and absentee voting, moving polling places out of senior living communities and training volunteers in how to disinfect polling stations. These remedies may be adequate; a more robust response would require a significant investment by states, including massively expanding the number of polling stations (to reduce voter congestion), hiring professional election administrators to staff the polling stations and training them for the current health crisis. Generally, governments have not been particularly inclined to take such measures — for example, polling stations tend to be staffed by volunteers, mostly elderly ones — but perhaps they’ll consider such investments now.
Another, more promising remedy would be a massive expansion of voting by mail. Five states, plus a number of localities, currently have all mail-in ballots. Voters’ experiences tend to be very positive, with high turnout, basically nonexistent fraud — and, importantly, almost no social interaction. Though ramping up to an all mail-in election is no small feat within the space of a few months, much less a few weeks, other states are now considering making that transition.
In the midst of a serious pandemic, when we must substantially reduce or eliminate nonessential social activities, we keep hospitals and grocery stores open — because they’re essential. Treating elections as nonessential in a crisis sets a terrible precedent. It’s understandable for states to want to boost (or simply protect) turnout, while discouraging citizens from taking unnecessary risks just to cast their ballots. But postponing an election carries its own risks. Holding these contests as scheduled, even if turnout suffers, is likely to be less damaging to a democracy in the long run.