WASHINGTON — The growing tension between containing a health crisis and preserving democratic norms spilled out into the open on the eve of another round of voting, with public officials nationwide — regardless of party affiliation — sending contradictory messages about the safety of conducting elections amid the coronavirus outbreak.
From President Donald Trump on down to governors and mayors, opinions split wildly over the wisdom of continuing with elections at the same time government officials ordered citywide curfews, closed down public spaces and instructed Americans to limit their gatherings to under 10 people.
It’s left the upcoming election calendar in a state of flux. Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana have postponed their primaries to later in the year, while Ohio’s governor unsuccessfully pushed to do the same. That means Tuesday’s elections in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio are still set to take place as planned.
“Postponing an election’s a very tough thing,” Trump said during a Monday press conference, urging states to stick to their scheduled elections. “I know they’re doing it very carefully. … I think they’ll do it very safely.”
Those comments echoed remarks made by the Democratic governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, who said Sunday that “democracy must continue” when asked about his state’s Tuesday primary, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
But just hours before Trump’s press conference, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a first-term Republican, said it was antithetical to tell people to stay home except to vote. Late Monday, a judge denied his motion to delay the March 17 election.
The conflicting signals demonstrate the difficulty government officials and political candidates are experiencing as they wrestle with how to maintain a central function of democracy during a pandemic requiring quarantine and isolation.
In the view of some officials, the vital importance of elections makes any changes to them more fraught than other decisions made recently in the interest of public health, like canceling large conferences or temporarily shuttering bars and restaurants.
The Centers for Disease Control hasn’t called for any restrictions on voting, other than encouraging mail-in and early balloting if possible.
“Our democracy doesn’t work if people don’t vote,” said Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “But you have to have people in order to have a democracy.”
Even the Democratic presidential campaigns are struggling to find the right response: Days after insisting that healthy citizens should continue to vote, officials with Joe Biden’s campaign Monday signaled they would defer to local officials on whether elections should continue as planned.
“Voting is at the very heart of who we are as a democracy,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager. “There is no more important duty for us as Americans. But there is also no more important duty for our leaders than ensuring our safety and security. We will follow the guidance offered by state and public health officials for how to best ensure their populations are looked after while encouraging participation in our democracy.”
For its part, the Sanders campaign was largely silent on the issue Monday, and did not respond to requests for comment from McClatchy.
During an appearance on CNN Sunday night, Sanders raised concerns about continuing to hold elections in the current climate.
“I would hope that governors listen to the public health experts, and what they are saying as you just indicated, we don’t want gatherings of more than 50 people,” Sanders said. “I’m thinking about some of the elderly people sitting behind the desks, registering people, doing all that stuff. Does that make a lot of sense? I’m not sure that it does.”
Political organizations also struggled with how to issue straightforward guidance to their members. Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy for America, which has endorsed Sanders, said they would tell their members to take extra precautions when they head to their polling places, such as trying to go during a time that typically isn’t busy.
“Usually we encourage people to go out to the polls, and I don’t think this will be an exception. But we’ll also talk about them being careful when they vote,” Sroka said. “The truth is I don’t think anyone has really great answers right now and that’s the part of the problem.”
Voting rights experts said the chaotic, last-minute, and uneven decisions about whether primaries should proceed as scheduled highlights the need for the federal and state governments to start preparing for changes to the voting process in the general election.
Moving the date of a primary isn’t ideal, they say, but for the general election, such an adjustment is an impossibility.
“The date of the federal election, that isn’t up for negotiations, that can’t be changed,” said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. “That is keyed to our transition of power at all levels of government. It is set by federal law; it is uniform across the country.”
Weiser said election officials need to adjust the voting process to make it safer for public health, including reconfiguring polling places to give people more space and giving everyone the option to vote by mail.
“We actually have the policy tools to address this situation so that everyone can vote safely and securely, and we have time to put it in place,” Weiser said. “But it’s a big lift. It’s nothing we can wait to put in place, it takes time.”
(Adam Wollner of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed reporting.)
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