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The Pandemic, State Primaries, and the November Elections

by John Haughey, FiscalNote

The COVID-19 emergency has scrambled the preliminary rounds of the 2020 election cycle, forcing 16 states to reschedule presidential primaries, and at least a dozen to reset state primaries.

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On May 2, former Vice President Joe Biden won the Kansas Democratic primary, taking 77 percent of the vote.  The fact that Biden, already President Donald Trump’s Nov. 3 presumptive challenger, easily won the Kansas Democratic primary is not noteworthy. 

The fact that all votes were cast by mail-in ballots, and that turnout nearly tripled compared to 2016’s Kansas Democratic primary, most certainly is.

Presidential and state primaries will also be conducted exclusively by all-mail ballots in Alaska and Ohio during the COVID-19 emergency, joining five states — Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah — that already have “all-mail” elections.

The “all mail-in primaries” is one of the ways the COVID-19 emergency has scrambled the preliminary rounds of the 2020 election cycle, forcing 16 states to reschedule presidential primaries and at least a dozen to reset state primaries.

The crisis has also sparked intense discussion into expanding mail-in, early, absentee and electronic voting opportunities. If the COVID-19 emergency persists, we could see measures such as extending qualifying deadlines for candidates and petitions, and relocating polling sites among governors and state lawmakers for the 38 state primaries scheduled for this spring and summer. 

Regardless of the decision, partisan lines have already been drawn in reference to “off-site” voting. Generally, Democrats favor expanded measures while Republicans do not. There is little chance such expansions adopted for primaries, however, would be permitted for November’s general election, even if a predicted fall second wave sweeps the nation.

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State COVID-19 Actions Related to Elections 

Twenty-one governors have issued 28 executive orders and three secretaries of state have issued four executive orders related to voting and elections laws during the COVID-19 emergency.

Elections officials in at least 16 states have used administrative authority to make various changes to state elections procedures. Minnesota and Iowa elections officials are pondering all-mail ballots for state primaries scheduled for this summer.

In 11 states — Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Utah, Illinois, Maine — emergency declarations give the governor, lieutenant governor, or secretary of state the power to delay or reschedule an election without legislative authorization. In the remaining states, lawmakers must first issue the governor and other executive officials the authority to do so for specific timeframes under temporary emergency declarations.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), at least 45 state legislatures have adopted measures related to elections since mid-March. Pennsylvania and South Dakota lawmakers postponed primary elections while in Massachusetts, Kentucky and Vermont, legislatures granted the governor or state elections officials the authority to postpone municipal elections and expand voting options. 

Alaska, Kansas and Ohio lawmakers authorized the state to direct that all primary and special elections be conducted by mail during the emergency. New York lawmakers are pondering at least six bills expanding absentee, mail-in, and electronic voting, and have adopted a measure extending candidate and petition deadlines for the June 23 state primary.

On March 27, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed Ohio House Bill 197, voiding a previous order by the secretary of state to move April 28 state primary election to June 2 with “no in-person voting except for a limited category of voters who need to use an accessible voting machine or cannot receive mail.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to soon sign HB 3006, approved by lawmakers on April 16, to conduct the June 30 state primary vote entirely by mail.

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State and Presidential Primaries Rescheduled 

On April 27, New York became the first state to cancel its presidential preference primary. It was originally set for April 28 and had been postponed until June 23 to share the ballot with the scheduled state primary.

Fifteen other states and one territory have rescheduled presidential primaries, mostly to coincide with scheduled congressional and state primaries, or — as Hawaii did — switched to voting by mail with extended deadlines. 

They are: Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Wyoming and Puerto Rico.

Thirty-eight states and territories, including New York, already have or still plan to conduct primaries for congressional and state candidates as originally scheduled this spring and summer.

The Hawaii Democratic Party canceled its April 4 in-person presidential primary and extended the deadline for mail-in ballots to May 22. Its state primaries remain scheduled for August 4.

On June 2, there will be 10 primaries, including five as scheduled — state primaries in Iowa, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and District of Columbia — and five rescheduled contests.

Of those five, Delaware’s and Rhode Island’s presidential primaries were changed to coincide with scheduled state primaries while presidential and state primaries in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were pushed back to June 2 from earlier dates.

On June 9, there will be five primaries. Nevada, North Dakota and South Carolina will conduct state contests as scheduled while postponed presidential/state primaries in Georgia and West Virginia have been reset for this date.

There will be six primaries on June 23, including South Carolina’s state run-off and New York’s state primary as scheduled and four that had been postponed.

Of the four rescheduled primaries for June 23, Kentuckians will vote in state/presidential contests while Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia voters will cast ballots in state runoff and primaries.

On June 30, Colorado, Oklahoma and Utah state primaries remain on tap as scheduled.

New Jersey’s presidential/state primaries have been rescheduled from June 2 to July 7 and Louisiana’s presidential primary, postponed from April 4, will coincide with the scheduled state primary on July 11.

Alabama, Texas and Maine will conduct rescheduled state primaries on July 14.

Seven state primaries remain set as scheduled for August 4 — Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Washington, Tennessee, Hawaii — and four state primaries remain unchanged and on tap for August 11; those in Minnesota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin.

Connecticut’s presidential/state primaries scheduled for April 28 are set for August 11, which will also see Georgia’s state run-off, previously set for July 21. 

Between August 18 and mid-September, eight states, including Florida, plan to stage state primaries as scheduled.

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