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Democratic Party moves toward remote voting for its summer presidential convention

A view of downtown Milwaukee, where the Democratic National Convention has been scheduled for August. (Darren Hauck/for The Washington Post)

The Democratic Party opened the door Tuesday to remote delegate voting for its summer presidential convention, a clear indication that the party is moving toward either a scaled-back event or a virtual gathering in August as the coronavirus threat continues to transform the election year.

With a vote of the rules and bylaws committee, which met by conference call, Democratic National Committee leaders agreed to give convention planners broad flexibility to change the structure and tradition of the nominating convention. The proposal passed unanimously, and it will be taken up in the coming weeks for ratification by a vote by mail of the full Democratic National Committee.

Democratic convention planners have emphasized that no final decision has been made on the structure of the event, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 17 in Milwaukee. In a normal year, the event would draw as many as 50,000 people, including nearly 5,000 delegates and about 20,000 members of the media.

“This resolution will give the convention the tools necessary to ensure that every delegate is able to conduct their official business without putting their health at risk, whether by participating in person or by other means to allow for social distancing,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said at the start of the call.

The party’s key subcommittee also took steps to streamline the convention proceedings, changing rules to remove two floor votes from the schedule.

All elected and appointed delegates, whether or not they attend the event in person, will still vote to nominate a presidential candidate, a vice presidential candidate and to accept the party’s platform. But the other two traditional floor votes, on the rules for the convention and the credentials for those who can participate, will now be passed by smaller subcommittees before the party’s full gathering.

Joe Solmonese, the chief executive of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, said in a statement Monday that he supported the changes.

“This resolution provides our team with increased flexibility to adjust our plans, ensure that every delegate is able to accomplish their official business without putting their own health at risk, and enables us to chart the most appropriate course forward as we work to launch our nominee to victory in November,” he said.

Former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, reiterated Tuesday in an interview with North Carolina’s Spectrum News that the party would be guided by health advice.

“I hope I’m going to be able to go to Milwaukee,” Biden said when asked about the potential for a virtual convention. “I hope we’re going to have it beyond virtual. But look, we have to follow the science.”

The convention had originally been planned for July, but it was moved back a month in hopes that restrictions forced by the coronavirus pandemic would ease by then.

“Our top priority has always been to ensure the health and safety of convention participants and the people of Milwaukee,” Jim Roosevelt, a co-chair of the rules and bylaws committee, said before the vote.

The committee, which governs the structure of the presidential nominating process, also voted to approve new primary dates for five states that have delayed their elections because of the pandemic. New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Louisiana and Delaware will be able to hold primaries in June and July, later than planned, without any change to the number of delegates they are allowed to send to the convention.

Two other states, Connecticut and Puerto Rico, have not rescheduled their primaries, though Democratic leaders have indicated that they will be similarly receptive to date changes before the convention.

The subcommittee took further steps to give state parties flexibility in their delegate selection process after primaries or caucuses. Under the new guidance, state parties can use remote meetings and online voting for most of the delegate selection process.

One section of a resolution that passed Tuesday recommends “certain changes . . . so as to safeguard the ability of all validly-elected Convention delegates to participate in the Convention in person or by means that allow for appropriate social distancing.”

Both parties have been privately preparing dramatic adjustments to their summer convention plans, given the ongoing pandemic. Republicans, however, have generally followed the lead of President Trump and expressed more determination about holding a traditional in-person event in Charlotte, beginning Aug. 24. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel recently asked federal officials to consider providing personal protective equipment to allow the events to operate more safely.

“The president wants to go full steam ahead,” McDaniel said. “We are full steam ahead for in person, in Charlotte.”

Before the vote, Perez criticized the protective equipment request as premature, given the ongoing shortages of protective equipment for others, including health-care workers.

“Donald Trump and Ronna McDaniel repeatedly downplayed the severity of this crisis and scoffed at making changes to their convention,” Perez said. “They are eager to advocate for federally funded personal protective equipment while dismissing the thousands of doctors and nurses in hospitals across this country who face significant shortages of PPE.”

He said Democrats would behave differently, though he has not ruled out accepting personal protective equipment from the federal government.

“Unlike our Republican counterparts, we will not have our public health heads in the sand,” Perez said.