Voting Rights and Democracy

America grapples with holding 2020 election amid coronavirus pandemic

Rather than postpone or delay crucial elections in which the people sought to select their national leaders, our nation has been committed to ensuring free and fair elections even under periods of great national strain.” — CAC David Gans

WASHINGTON – The Democratic Party has postponed the convention to formally name its presidential nominee to August, the latest way the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the traditional presidential election cycle in the United States this year.

But Wisconsin’s primary election is still set to go ahead on April 7 following a federal judge’s decision, despite worries that carrying on with the election in the midst of a pandemic may pose public health risks or deter voters from voting.

The patchwork of approaches to carrying out elections highlights the lack of consensus across states and among administrators on how to best assure voters’ safety while ensuring the show goes on.Erring on the side of caution, the Democratic National Committee announced on Thursday (April 2) that it was pushing back the party convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from July 13 to Aug 17.

“In our current climate of uncertainty, we believe the smartest approach is to take additional time to monitor how this situation unfolds so we can best position our party for a safe and successful convention,” the convention’s chief executive Joe Solmonese said in a statement.

About 50,000 people were expected to have attended the convention, a massive made-for-television rally full of hand-shaking, hugging, and attendees in very close quarters – something unthinkable in today’s climate, with large gatherings banned and most of the country under social distancing restrictions.

But pushing back the convention by a month will delay the formal crowning of the party’s nominee, who will take on President Donald Trump in November. While former vice-president Joe Biden is the front runner and presumptive nominee, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is staying in the race for now.

The delay will also give the party less time to unify and pivot to taking on Mr Trump in a general election campaign – a real concern, given the divisive primary campaign.

Nonetheless, the traditional election timetable is already being upended with 15 Democratic primaries delayed, several to June 2.

Wisconsin will buck the trend and go ahead with its primary election on April 7 after a federal judge issued a decision on Thursday saying he could not postpone the election, despite a statewide stay-at-home order.

Deadlines to request and return absentee ballots will be extended, however.

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Other states are also moving to expand mail-in voting in time for November, in line with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations of voting methods that minimise direct contact with other people and reduce crowd sizes at polling stations.

Public health experts and party officials say there is enough time before the June primary contests, as well as before Nov 3, to implement measures to protect voters.

“If grocery stores and drug stores all over the country are adapting, we can certainly figure it out for polling places,” Brookings Institution senior fellow Elaine Kamarck, who sits on the DNC’s rules committee, wrote on the think tank’s website on Thursday.

“By June 2, we can hope that states print extra absentee ballots and figure out the procedures needed to move people through a polling place, practice social distancing, and sanitise machines.”

The Trump administration’s handling of the crisis has also become a lightning rod for critics.

House intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff on Wednesday said he was working on legislation for a bipartisan inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic, modelled after the commission that investigated the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

Republicans called the move a political stunt, and it is unclear how voters would respond, given how the President’s approval ratings have received a slight boost in recent weeks.

“For more than 200 years, we have held federal elections in the midst of wars and bouts with serious diseases. Whatever the crisis, we have found ways to protect democracy, while maintaining our public safety and security,” Constitutional Accountability Centre director and constitutional lawyer David Gans wrote in the Slate magazine.

“Rather than postpone or delay crucial elections in which the people sought to select their national leaders, our nation has been committed to ensuring free and fair elections even under periods of great national strain,” he added.

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