Coronavirus Fears Could Depress Voter Turnout In Coming Primaries

There are growing concerns that some voters, particularly older people, may stay home on Election Day to avoid long lines and crowded rooms.

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The growing coronavirus pandemic is affecting every facet of American life, and it could soon have a serious impact on U.S. elections too.

On Friday, Louisiana became the first state to postpone its 2020 primary over the outbreak, moving it from April 4 to June 20. The state’s top election official said he was doing so out of an abundance of caution to protect both poll workers and voters themselves, adding that moving entirely to absentee ballots was not possible this close to the election.

Meanwhile, officials in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio ― all of which are holding primaries on March 17, this coming Tuesday ― said that they do not plan to delay their elections.

“Americans have participated in elections during challenging times in the past,” the secretaries of state said in a joint statement on Friday, “and based on the best information we have from public health officials, we are confident that voters in our states can safely and securely cast their ballots in this election.”

Voters in all four states can still cast their vote by mail-in ballot ― although the official deadline to request a mail-in ballot in Illinois and Florida has already passed.

Still, there are growing concerns that some voters, particularly older people, may stay home on Election Day to avoid long lines and crowded rooms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that older people, especially, are more vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The health agency has urged people to avoid gatherings and crowds to help fight the spread of the disease.

David Barker, a professor of government at American University, said he expected lower voter turnout in coming primaries this year due to fears of the coronavirus and the fact that former Vice President Joe Biden appears to have a commanding delegate lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the race for the Democratic nomination.

“It will be impossible to know what combination of those factors is responsible for what I expect to be substantially reduced turnout on Tuesday (and especially beyond),” Barker, who studies voting behavior, told HuffPost in an email Friday.

Election officials in Washington state, which saw a particularly large number of coronavirus cases at nursing homes and senior facilities, are expecting to confirm a record voter turnout in its primary earlier this week. But many of the state’s ballots were mailed in weeks before the outbreak worsened across the country and before the cancellations of major sporting and cultural events and other public gatherings.

There is evidence that Biden’s campaign is paying attention to how coronavirus fears may impact the election. Exit poll after exit poll has shown older voters ― 65 and up ― overwhelmingly supporting Biden in recent primaries.

On Friday, senior Biden campaign adviser Kate Bedingfield issued a statement urging individuals who may be at risk for the virus or who may present a risk to others to vote by absentee ballot.

“If voters are feeling healthy, not exhibiting symptoms, and don’t believe they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, please vote on Tuesday. If voters are members of an at-risk population, exhibiting symptoms, or have been exposed to a diagnosed case of COVID-19, we encourage them to explore absentee ballots and vote by mail options,” Bedingfield said in a statement.

Lawmakers and election experts are also starting to call for instituting an automatic vote-by-mail program in all 50 states ahead of the November general election. On Wednesday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) proposed allowing all Americans to vote by mail in case of an emergency, asking $500 million to help states get ready for any voter disruptions caused by the coronavirus.

Instituting such a program would be complicated and take time, meaning Congress should act now in order to prepare state voting systems, University of California, Irvine law professor Rick Hasen said.

“If we think of the country as at war with coronavirus right now, as part of the war effort we should put plans in place to insure that voters may cast their ballots easily and freely in November,” Hasen wrote in Slate on Friday. “If Congress does not act, millions of people who live in states without no-excuse absentee balloting face the risk of disenfranchisement.”

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