Most voters in Delaware and New York are unable by law to vote by mail, which could force them to make a difficult choice in the April 28 primary: Either risk going out to the polls during the coronavirus pandemic or don’t exercise the right to vote.
The states are among eight planning to hold primary elections in April, which face a range of challenges related to how they plan to deal with recommendations to avoid crowded places during the coronavirus pandemic.
Delaware and New York are the only two of these eight states that do not currently allow voters to cast an absentee ballot by mail without an excuse. Connecticut, which was also slated for an April 28 primary and does not allow voting by mail without an excuse, is moving its primary to June 2, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) announced on Thursday.
New York still plans on holding its presidential preference primary election on April 28 despite it being an epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak, with 7,102 confirmed cases as of Friday morning. In response to the crisis, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ordered all state residents to “remain indoors to the greatest extent,” and shuttered most businesses across the state on Friday.
The state is currently transitioning to reduce barriers to absentee voting, but does not provide for anyone to get one without an excuse at this moment.
Cuomo has the power to either delay the election, which is under consideration, or to allow every citizen to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot. He already did so when he issued an executive order on March 14 to allow anyone to request an absentee ballot for the March 24 Queens borough president election, but New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) later canceled that election.
New York county election boards also have the ability to allow voters to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse. Erie County, which includes the city of Buffalo, announced on March 11 that all voters for the April 28 presidential primary and the 27th congressional district special election to replace jailed ex-Rep. Chris Collins (R) can cast an absentee ballot by mail.
Cuomo has not yet issued an executive order for the April 28 election. The governor’s office and the State Board of Elections did not respond to requests for comment.
Delaware also plans to go ahead with its April 28 primary election by complying with Center for Disease Control recommendations to wipe down voting machines and limit the number of people inside any polling location at a given time. There are no plans at this moment to change the rules limiting who can get access to an absentee ballot.
“We don’t have any authority to deviate from the state law,” Anthony Albence, Delaware State Election Commissioner, said regarding allowing no-excuse absentee voting during the pandemic.
The office of Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) did not respond to a request for comment.
While the Delaware state government is not yet moving to provide for no-excuse absentee voting, the Newark, Delaware, city government plans to mail ballots to all registered voters who request them to enable more voting from home in the city’s April 14 municipal elections.
Rhode Island, which is also set to hold its presidential preference primary on April 28, technically requires an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot, but voters are allowed to request an absentee ballot if they can’t get to the polling location on Election Day, and that excuse is interpreted rather liberally.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) is currently considering whether to allow the state to conduct a nearly all-mail election as Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea (D) and the Board of Elections have suggested. She is also considering moving the election to June 2, a recommendation approved by the Board of Elections, but opposed by Gorbea.
“As we’ve seen, this is a quickly evolving situation,” Josh Block, press secretary for Raimondo, said in a statement. “The Rhode Island primary is still more than a month away, and the Governor’s top priority is protecting the immediate public health and safety of Rhode Islanders. She is open to the idea of moving the election date and will rely on guidance from public health and election officials to inform that decision.”
Gorbea wants the governor to issue an emergency decree to allow her to send all 780,000 registered voters on file a letter with a prepaid postage return envelope that they can send back to request an absentee ballot. Those ballots would then be sent out to those requesting them with their own return envelopes with postage prepaid.
“I actually feel that we could do this for April 28 and it would be less confusing to voters if we kept the dates but moved some of the timelines for it,” Gorbea said.
Those timelines include the cutoff dates for registering to vote and requesting and submitting mailed or absentee ballots.
Lamont’s decision to postpone Connecticut’s April 28 primary election to June 2 came amid discussions about postponement and loosening restrictions on absentee voting. Connecticut does not currently allow for no-excuse absentee voting. Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill (D) called on Lamont to issue an emergency declaration allowing anyone to request an absentee ballot amid the pandemic emergency on March 13. While the primary election was delayed, there has been no announcement on allowing increased access to absentee voting.
Wisconsin holds its primary election in just three weeks on April 7. Election officials are urging voters to request absentee ballots now so they can vote by mail. The Wisconsin Elections Commission reported on Tuesday that requests for absentee ballot applications are “at a record pace” that exceeded total application requests from the state’s 2017, 2018 and 2019 spring elections. Voters have until April 2 to request a mailed absentee ballot.
The Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Elections Commission on Wednesday challenging provisions that pose “direct and severe obstacles to voting,” under the circumstances created by the pandemic.
The lawsuit challenges the registration deadline for absentee voters, which passed on Wednesday, the requirements for those applying and casting absentee ballots to provide photo identification and that the requirement that ballots be submitted by 8 p.m. on election day to be counted. These provisions all create barriers to voting for Wisconsinites as the pandemic has suddenly changed the election landscape under voters’ feet, the lawsuit argues.
Voters in Pennsylvania are allowed to vote by mail in the state’s April 28 primary election and state officials are encouraging everyone who can to do so. But discussions are still underway about possibly postponing the election or changing other rules to increase safe voting options for voters.
The Wyoming Democratic Party announced on March 12 that it would scrap its April 4 in-person presidential preference caucus and encouraged every voter to vote by mail instead. The two other states hosting April 4 primary elections ― Alaska and Hawaii ― already conduct their elections primarily through the mail and don’t anticipate any major changes due to the pandemic.
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