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Postponing An Election: Prudent or Bad Precedent?

A key principle of an election’s legitimacy is that the public knows when, where, and how the election will take place and that it is widely accessible to qualified voters. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has struck in the middle of various election contests and states now confront difficult, last-minute questions about how or when to run their planned elections.

There are unprecedented and difficult decisions to make. Should elections move forward as planned or be postponed until the virus is more under control? Should they go on only with absentee voting and no in-person voting? Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio faced precisely these decisions in the lead up to their primary elections this week. Postponing an election, especially a primary, does not have to be a legitimacy crisis, but there are certain steps states should take to avoid doing so imprudently.

For most of the country, voting involves showing up to sometimes crowded polling places, waiting in line, sharing the use of technology and pens, and generally being closer than six feet from groups of more than 10 people at a time. This is a nightmare for the social distancing necessary to flatten the curve and reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In a few states, voting absentee—by mail or drop off ballot—is the primary method of voting, while the rest of the country varies in its availability. Nationwide, only 23.7% of all votes were cast by mail in 2016.

Ohio was the lone state among the Tuesday contests that did not proceed, instead making a late-in-the-night decision to postpone until June. Some raise concerns that postponing primary elections sets a bad precedent for delaying the November general election, and suggest that alternative measures could have been taken:

“…including expanding early and absentee voting, moving polling places out of senior living communities and training volunteers in how to disinfect polling stations. These remedies may be adequate; a more robust response would require a significant investment by states, including massively expanding the number of polling stations (to reduce voter congestion), hiring professional election administrators to staff the polling stations and training them for the current health crisis.”

Undoubtedly, though, each of these measures would take days, if not weeks or months, to implement. Especially for states with less absentee voting, standing up or expanding such systems will not happen overnight. If a contest is tomorrow or next week, what should a state do?

If a state chooses, in accordance with state and federal law, to postpone an election there are two key considerations for maintaining the contest’s legitimacy: 1) it should not be done at the eleventh-hour and 2) there needs to be a defined plan for how the election will proceed later.

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No eleventh-hour decisions.

States should announce as soon as possible any changes to the normal election, ideally no less than one week ahead of Election Day. Some states did make this decision early, but Ohio waited until late the night before polls opened.

Figure 1: State Election/Primary Postponement

This chart was prepared by BPC intern Emma Jones.

StateOriginal date Date postponed New dateDays Between Original and Announcement
OhioMarch 17March 16June 21
GeorgiaMarch 24March 14May 1910
Puerto RicoMarch 29March 16April 2613
AlabamaMarch 31March 18July 1413
LouisianaApril 4March 13June 2022
MissouriApril 7March 18June 220
MarylandApril 28March 17June 242
KentuckyMay 19March 16June 2364
South CarolinaVarious March and April datesMarch 15After May 14

Ohio’s governor, who otherwise seems to have handled his state’s response to the pandemic quite well, fumbled this decision and caused widespread confusion. Just hours before voting, it was still not clear whether the election would proceed as planned.

States should not make any announcements about postponement of an election until they have a clear plan for how the election will eventually proceed.

Lawmakers and election officials should have a plan ready for how the election will proceed and communicate it widely and loudly. Primarily, they will need to state the new date of the contest and how already-cast early and absentee ballots will be treated, but there are other considerations as well.

Such an announcement may need to clarify for the public changes to or additions of polling places, new health-related measures for in-person voting, and alterations to voter registration deadlines, deadlines for requesting absentee ballots, and deadlines for postmarking or dropping off ballots, among other considerations. States that require an excuse to vote absentee should state whether the COVID-19 situation qualifies as an excuse.

States also might need time to acquire equipment, hire new poll workers, rent facilities, and contract for the printing of additional mail ballots and envelopes. Information about how this will be carried out should follow as well, but the public must know up front as much information as possible about how the election will eventually be conducted.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, but they must be well-executed.

Given that election contests must still be decided in the near future and the pandemic does not seem likely to abate soon, it is critical that states take these steps to bolster the legitimacy of our elections. Almost any of the suggestions that have been raised for conducting a safer election during the current emergency would take time to implement, and so it is reasonable for states to postpone an election to allow time for that. When doing so, though, it should not be a last-minute decision and clear plans should be communicated immediately.

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