Multiple states shelve primary contests as coronavirus shuffles 2020 election calendar

The coronavirus pandemic has thrust the 2020 campaign into uncharted territory.

April 1, 2020, 1:09 PM

The far-reaching novel coronavirus pandemic has thrust the 2020 campaign into uncharted territory, forcing election officials to choose between upending the primary calendar or forging ahead with in-person voting amid urgent calls for people to stay at home.

At least 15 states and one territory have postponed or otherwise extended their presidential primaries so far, and more are expected to follow, amid anxiety over the coronavirus outbreak. Election officials are seeking to minimize the health risks associated with COVID-19 either by moving contests or implementing alternative tactics to in-person voting.

West Virginia was the fifteenth state to announce it will delay its primary due to concerns over the coronavirus. Gov. Jim Justice announced on Wednesday that the state would bump the primary from May 12 to June 9, though absentee ballots will continue to be cast during this time.

"We’re still going to proceed ahead on our absentee ballots. At the end of the day, I want this to be the biggest turnout of all time,” Justice said.

In the last couple of days, both Pennsylvania and New York, the last of the Acela primary states, which were scheduled to hold contests on April 28, have delayed their primaries until June.

"I don't think it's wise to be bringing a lot of people to one location to vote. A lot of people touching one door knob, a lot of people touching one pen, whatever you call it -- device on the ballots. So, we are going to delay that, and link it to an election that was previously scheduled on June 23," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, announcing the new date in a press conference on Saturday, March 28.

On Friday, March 27, Pennsylvania officially postponed its presidential primary after Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill that was unanimously passed by the state's House and Senate to amend its election code and move the presidential primary to June 2.

PHOTO: A voter holds voting materials as she waits outside King County Elections in Renton, Wash., March 10, 2020.
A voter holds voting materials as she waits outside King County Elections in Renton, Wash., March 10, 2020.
Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images

The three states now join Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wyoming, as well as Puerto Rico, in no longer planning to hold their primaries on the original dates that were set and approved by the Democratic National Committee.

In most of the states, election officials overseeing the contests have officially announced a new date, while some remain in flux with bills and lawsuits still being worked out.

The fate of Ohio's last-minute suspended primary was taken up by the state legislature to set a new date.

After Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the polls closed on the eve of its previously scheduled primary, the state's Democratic Party sued Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose over setting the new primary date on June 2, which they argue is not within in his purview, but instead falls under the state legislature's domain.

The Ohio legislature has since extended the deadline for absentee voting until April 28 in an emergency relief package signed by DeWine.

Among the states that have moved their primaries, at least six are currently set to now take place on June 2, setting up one of the most delegate-rich dates of the entire Democratic primary season -- with 686 delegates now up for grabs. That delegate prize is now only second to Super Tuesday, when 1,344 delegates were awarded to the Democratic field.

PHOTO: Chicago residents line up for early voting at the Roden Library Monday, March 16, 2020, in Chicago.
Chicago residents line up for early voting at the Roden Library Monday, March 16, 2020, in Chicago.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

While there has been a bit of a lull in primary voting, the next contest is slated for April 7 in Wisconsin, one of the key 2020 battlegrounds that could define November's general election. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said that rescheduling the primary is not on the table "at this time" and that the governor's office is "evaluating this as it goes forward. We’re hoping to hold it on the date if we possibly can."

In three states, Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming, which were initially scheduled for April 4, the state parties have all canceled in-person voting, shifting entirely to vote-by-mail, and extended the date by which ballots must be returned by -- essentially delaying their primaries.

Wyoming canceled the in-person caucuses, and is relying instead on vote-by-mail. The Wyoming Democratic Party will now be accepting ballots by mail until April 17.

In Hawaii, ballots originally had to be received in the mail by 3 p.m. local time on April 4 in order to be counted. Now the state party has said it will send ballots to any voter who joins the party by April 4, but it did not specify when these ballots needed to be returned by.

In Alaska, the party isn't mailing out more ballots, but voters now have the ability to download a ballot online, and the ballots don't need to be received by the party until April 10. More than 71,000 ballots have already been mailed to Democratic voters, according to the state party.

National Democrats are imploring states that have not yet voted to push for early and mail-in voting, in lieu of pushing back primaries.

"As our country deals with the uncertainty of COVID-19, it is critical that states provide clarity and not confusion, which could lead to disenfranchising voters. In order to ensure the voices of voters are heard, the DNC is urging the remaining primary states to use a variety of other critical mechanisms that will make voting easier and safer for voters and election officials alike. 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," DNC chair Tom Perez said in a statement.

"That's why states that have not yet held primary elections should focus on implementing the aforementioned measures to make it easier and safer for voters to exercise their constitutional right to vote, instead of moving primaries to later in the cycle when timing around the virus remains unpredictable," he added.

President Donald Trump, too, said that while the decision to hold elections stays with each state for now, it is "unnecessary" to move the primaries.

"I would leave that up to the states," Trump said during one of his daily briefings from the White House. "I think postponing election is a very tough thing. I know that they have been in touch with us, and they are doing it very carefully. ... I think postponing elections is not a very good thing. ... I think postponing is unnecessary."

But for three states that have delayed their primaries outside of the DNC's window for voting when voting should take place, which falls on June 9, New York, Kentucky and Louisiana face another wrinkle.

While the DNC is seeking to be "flexible" as they work with the state parties to adjust to a new normal, in a new memo, obtained by ABC News, from the DNC's rules committee suggests that any state that violates the "rule on timing, or any other rule" could face a penalty that includes "at least a 50% reduction in delegates, which will need to be reviewed" -- potentially further disrupting the electoral system.

The committee tasked with approving the delegate selection plans for each state, including when states hold their primary contests, hasn't collectively taken action on any changes states have implemented due to the coronavirus, and no meeting has yet been called or is scheduled, a member of the national party committee told ABC News.

For states that have changed the dates of their primaries or conventions, but are still within the deadlines set by the DNC, those changes "can be viewed as a technical change to the plan," and are being reviewed by staff. The heads of the Rules and Bylaws Committee co-chairs Jim Roosevelt and Lorraine Miller, can approve those changes without convening the entire committee, according to the DNC member.

In a recent memo from Roosevelt and Miller, obtained by ABC News, to members of the powerful rules committee, they identified 22 states, plus Democrats Abroad, that have proposed some change to their DNC-approved delegate selection plans, including: Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Among the changes states have proposed, the Rules and Bylaws Committee will review "changing and postponing dates of the meeting where delegates are elected; canceling or combining scheduled meetings; modifying the rules that govern those meeting, such as proxy voting and quorum requirements; exploring vote by mail and other methods in the steps to select national convention delegates while implementing social distancing in their state."

For those states and territories seeking to change the dates of their primaries and will need to submit updated plans for review, the Rules and Bylaws Committee has received requests so far from Ohio, Georgia, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, Wyoming, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Indiana, Louisiana and Kentucky.

ABC News' Alisa Wiersema and Meg Cunningham contributed to this report.

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