By Wendy Underhill
What with all the news on public health, politicos are probably sighing with relief that we’ve got a lull in presidential and state primaries for the next few weeks. This lull reflects the calendar as it was, as well as the postponement of primaries due to the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Coronavirus concerns affect poll workers as well as voters. Voters might skip in-person voting as part of their efforts to reduce exposure to the virus, and poll workers—often civic-minded, hardworking people older than 60—may take the prudent approach and beg off, leaving polling places understaffed.
In terms of state primaries (where candidates for congressional, state, legislative and partisan local elected officials run), the next scheduled events were to be primary runoffs on March 31 in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi.
Alabama’s has been postponed until July 14. This will be one of the most widely watched non-presidential events of the season, given that former Senator Jeff Sessions and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville are contending for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
So far, primary runoffs in Arkansas and Mississippi are proceeding as scheduled—but neither has a high-profile race. Other than those runoffs, the next state primary is scheduled for April 28 in Pennsylvania, though some county officials have asked the governor to postpone it.
Presidential primaries are also on the move. The next were to take place in Georgia on March 24, and in Louisiana and Wisconsin on April 7. Louisiana was the first to announce a postponement (until June 20). Then Georgia postponed (until May 19). Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) has chosen to continue with the set date, while the Wisconsin Elections Board has recommended a postponement—stay tuned for change on that front.
We’ve looked back to find comparable situations and haven’t turned up any in recent decades (or earlier, for that matter). Two notable election emergencies:
- The 9/11 attacks happened on primary day in New York; any votes cast early in the day were nullified, and the primary was rescheduled for Sept. 25.
- Superstorm Sandy struck the week before the 2012 general election; New Jersey was hit hard, and it responded by allowing displaced voters to be treated like overseas voters, with extended time to turn in their ballots.
“There’s always been the sense that Election Day is an unmovable object,” says Doug Chapin of Election Academy. “No matter what happens, Election Day is going to happen—the election calendar stops for nothing.”
Until now—one more data point that we are experiencing an extraordinary event.
For more on election postponements and other coronavirus-related election news, see NCSL’s COVID-19 and Elections.
Wendy Underhill is the director of elections for NCSL.