The Democratic National Committee and the Wisconsin Democratic Party sought a solution in federal court, suing Wisconsin elections commissioners to get an emergency judgment extending Wednesday’s deadline to register to vote electronically and by mail and lifting requirements that absentee ballots be received by Election Day.
The national party is confronting vexing questions about its projected timeline for concluding the presidential nominating contest and putting forward a candidate at its July convention. While former vice president Joe Biden extended his dominant lead with wins in Tuesday’s three primary races, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declined to bow out of the race immediately.
The effort to develop voting contingencies took on new urgency as the three contests that unfolded on Tuesday showcased what experts described as unprecedented challenges involved in conducting in-person voting during a public-health emergency.
The problems were most acute in Illinois, where voters arrived at some polling places to find no election judges to run the process or no hand sanitizer or wipes for use on voting machines. Suburban Cook County saw its lowest voter turnout in 12 years.
“The United States of America failed to live up to our democratic ideals when our primary election process broke down in a myriad of ways across several states,” said Ken Martin, the chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party as well as a DNC vice chairman and president of the Association of State Democratic Committees.
Martin urged all states to adopt emergency measures to ensure that voters do not lose access to the polls as a result of public-health precautions taken to slow the spread of the virus.
Across the country, state and local officials are wrestling with how to do that.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner said Wednesday that his office would “ramp up” absentee ballot opportunities for the state’s May 12 primary, following an advisory opinion from the state’s attorney general that alternative forms of balloting could be expanded during a state of emergency.
In Texas, where local elections are scheduled for May 2, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) suspended a provision of the state’s election code to allow local governments to postpone those races. But questions loomed over a runoff contest in a Senate primary set for May 26, as the Texas Democratic Party urged the secretary of state’s office to develop contingency plans to conduct the election entirely by mail.
“An all-mail election in which county election officials mail a ballot to every registered voter is the only realistic option that ensures meaningful participation in the elections while also protecting public health,” the chair of the Texas Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, wrote Monday in a letter to Secretary of State Ruth R. Hughs. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.
Texas requires that voters requesting to vote early by mail have an excuse, such as being 65 or older.
In Kansas, the state Democratic Party announced this week that it is automatically sending mail-in ballots to all registered Democrats in the state. Ballots will be mailed March 30 for the May 2 primary, which is run by the party rather than the state.
In Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine (R) ordered polling places closed on Tuesday, the state Democratic Party asked the state Supreme Court to intervene to ensure that eligible voters would have an adequate opportunity to cast ballots. The motion argued that Ohio’s secretary of state, who envisioned the postponement of in-person voting until June 2, lacked the authority to set a new date for the primary without action by the legislature or a court.
In addition to Ohio, four states have delayed their presidential primaries — Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maryland — with others possibly following suit in the coming days. Additional states have delayed local, runoff and special elections or have moved to an all-mail system.
Citing President Trump’s warning against public gatherings of more than 10 people, Kay Ivey, Alabama’s Republican governor, on Wednesday announced that a runoff Senate election pitting former senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) against former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, originally scheduled for March 31, would be delayed to July 14.
A resolution is moving forward in Puerto Rico to delay the presidential primary, originally scheduled for March 29, to April 26. It is expected to win the governor’s signature by the end of the week.
Meanwhile, an all-mail special election to fill the Baltimore-based seat of the late representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) on April 28 will present an early test of how easy it will be to provide voters safer ways to cast ballots. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Tuesday ordered that the election be conducted entirely by mail. In the black-majority district, few voters have availed themselves of mail-in opportunities in past elections, raising concerns among voting advocates about how the state will raise awareness about the new system.
In Wisconsin, where the presidential primary is scheduled for April 7, the elections commission has been proceeding under the assumption that the date won’t change, according to a spokesman, Reid Magney. The date of the primary is inscribed in state law.
The joint legal action by the state and national Democratic parties similarly predicts a scenario in which neither Gov. Tony Evers (D) nor the GOP-controlled legislature takes more sweeping emergency actions to delay in-person voting.
The Democratic lawsuit argues that because of mounting coronavirus cases and a statewide ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, eligible voters could be discouraged from registering in person.
It asks that online and mail-in registration be extended to April 3.
“As Wisconsin citizens continue to distance themselves to ensure their safety, many will be unwilling to risk their safety and the safety of others by waiting in line to register to vote and cast their vote on election day,” the filing states.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, also seeks the invalidation of proof-of-residence and voter-ID requirements for electronic and by-mail voter registration and absentee applications, which the parties argue could hamper participation as “voters are now without access to the scanners and printers needed to generate copies.”
They are also seeking to do away with the requirement that absentee ballots be received by Election Day, instead asking that ballots be accepted within 10 days of the election as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.
Most voters in the state are required to show photo identification when voting at the polls or seeking absentee ballots. Exceptions include voters in special-care facilities, who can use a witness signature with their absentee ballot as a substitute.
Magney declined to comment on the complaint. But at a meeting on Wednesday, commissioners said they lacked the authority to change deadlines and make other changes without legislation or intervention by a judge.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez has urged states to give voters alternative ways to participate. “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,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
One state, Louisiana, has set a new primary date that falls after the DNC’s June 9 deadline. Existing rules stipulate that such a delay could result in a state losing at least half of its delegates. James Roosevelt, co-chair of the DNC’s rules and bylaws committee, said this week that his panel would consider whether to enforce these rules, adding that he had not received any formal requests for an exemption.
The DNC has enlisted an elections expert and former Virginia elections commissioner to assist state parties in sorting out changes in the delegate selection process. In addition to primary contests, numerous state parties have either postponed or canceled county conventions that are the first step in choosing delegates who ultimately vote on the nominee at the national convention.
The adviser, Edgardo Cortés, will be a central point of contact as state parties grapple with delays and other procedural changes.
“We’ve never faced anything like this before,” said Roosevelt, a lawyer and a grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.