“Events are moving rapidly and my highest priority is protecting the health of our poll workers, their families, and the community at large,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in a written statement announcing the delay.
The state currently has 45 reported cases of the novel coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gov. Brian Kemp (R) declared a state of emergency Saturday morning, following President Trump’s decision on Friday to declare a national emergency.
The delay spotlights the difficulty of reconciling public health with voter access. That issue is especially fraught in Georgia, where the 2018 governor’s race prompted outcry from civil rights groups about the rejection of absentee ballots and the closure of polling places in predominantly black neighborhoods, among other concerns.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called on the state to make “extraordinary efforts” to communicate with the public about the delay announced Saturday.
The move from Raffensperger, a Republican, follows a decision on Friday by election officials in Louisiana to delay that state’s primary from April 4 to June 20.
At a news conference, Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, said the delay would help protect the health of elderly poll workers. He also said his recommendation — which was endorsed by the governor — enjoyed bipartisan agreement.
“When I contacted the governor’s office, I think that there was some relief in us coming to that decision,” Ardoin said.
The Wyoming Democratic Party also announced this week that it would do away with the in-person portion of its caucuses, scheduled for April 4. Instead, voters are encouraged to participate by mail, dropping off ballots on March 28 and April 4.
Meanwhile, the four states that have primaries scheduled for Tuesday — Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio — announced jointly that their contests would proceed as planned. They pointed to guidance from public health officials, who have declared voting safe if best practices are followed.
The disruption to the primary schedule came as presidential campaigns called off rallies, and as some Democrats began to call for contingency plans for the party’s summer convention, which is set to bring tens of thousands of Democrats to Milwaukee in July. Republicans will convene several weeks later in Charlotte.
A total of 105 pledged delegates are at stake in Georgia’s primary. Early voting began in the state on March 2 and had originally been expected to continue through March 20. Nearly 280,000 voters have already participated that way.
Nikema Williams, a state senator and the chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party, said votes that have already been cast will still be counted, while those who wish to participate in person will be able to do so on May 19, which is when Georgians were already scheduled to weigh in on a series of local, state and federal races.
“Our priority is to protect the health and safety of all Georgians and to ensure that as many Georgians as possible have an opportunity to vote,” Williams said. “Continued in-person voting could compromise both goals.”
According to a delegate selection timetable released by the Democratic National Committee, the deadline for states to hold their primaries or caucuses is June 9. The DNC said a delay beyond that point — as now envisioned in Louisiana — could cause a state to lose a portion of its delegates, though the body’s rules and bylaws committee is set to consider how to enforce the regulations.
Georgia’s new timeline would fall within the DNC’s rules. In fact, going later in the calendar could make the state eligible for bonus delegates.
Georgia’s presidential primary was already primed for heightened scrutiny as officials roll out 30,000 new voting machines, a response to persistent election security concerns in recent years.
A federal judge declared the state’s former paperless voting system “unsecure, unreliable and grossly outdated” last August. But experts have also raised doubts about the new machines, saying they are at risk of malfunctioning and vulnerable to intrusion.
In Wisconsin, where the presidential primaries are scheduled for April 7, election officials were racing to provide voters with absentee ballots while waiting to see if the governor and the state legislature would take more drastic action.
Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said state officials have been attending webinars and conference calls with the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while also working with the state’s Department of Health Services.
The commission this week suspended plans to dispatch special voting deputies to deliver absentee ballots to nursing homes. They will be placed in the mail instead.
Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.