The collision of the coronavirus pandemic and election schedules forces officials to carefully weigh the risk of spreading contagion against voting’s paramount role in democracy. Institutions, including the national primary system, must be shored up to preserve as much normalcy as public health allows.
More than 20 states still have presidential primary elections to conduct. Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, no state should repeat Ohio’s mistake of shutting down its scheduled March 17 vote hours before the polls opened. Five states — Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maryland — have taken the wiser path to move their primaries later on the election calendar. Ohio is now working to join them with a rescheduled primary date in June that allows its citizens to participate. All states awaiting turns should find paths to let more voters skip the polling place while making their voices heard.
Washington’s vote-by-mail system provides excellent guidance for how this can be done, but it is not a roadmap every state can carry out immediately. Washington took more than a decade to migrate from poll-site elections to statewide all-mail voting; the long path included allowing voters to opt into permanent absentee status as a transitional step. The remaining primary states have just a few months until the summer nominating conventions for the presidency, after which the hard deadline becomes imminent. Federal law sets the general election on November’s first Tuesday.
Instead, states must pour resources now into safe and secure elections. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University estimated its recommended election safety measures would run $2 billion nationally, including polling-place modification and a national vote-by-mail option. Epidemiologists forecast a potential autumn resurgence of COVID-19, so Congress must find a way to fund much of these improvements.
Washington is not immune to this systemic threat. The ballot envelopes mailed to courthouses must be opened and processed; in a statewide election, thousands of permanent and temporary workers convene in county offices to complete this task. Although the state has gotten through its presidential primary, governments in 18 counties have put forth ballot measures for the scheduled April 28 election — which, according to some epidemiologists, may coincide with a spring coronavirus peak. No elections to government office are involved; county ballot measures featured a new Thurston County courthouse, several school levies and extending San Juan Fire & Rescue response to Friday Harbor.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman has rightly asked that this April election date be cancelled. Even though a cancellation is unprecedented within memory, it’s the right thing to do. Several Snohomish County school boards and the Thurston County Commissioners have been wise to withdraw from the April ballot voluntarily; other jurisdictions should follow.
If any decline to withdraw, Gov. Jay Inslee should explore whether his emergency powers enable an extraordinary, one-time cancellation. This spring’s set of issues can be decided more safely in the scheduled August 4 election without causing systemic harm to avoid an imminent threat to election workers’ health.