Pennsylvania’s primary election is seven weeks away. The coronavirus pandemic is uncomfortably closer than that.
With schools and universities sending students home, the state Capitol in Harrisburg closing its doors to visitors, and professional sports seasons coming to a snap ending, what are elections officials to do about the April 28 primary?
State Rep. Kevin Boyle, a Northeast Philadelphia Democrat, wants to require the state to mail a ballot to every eligible voter, moving the primary and general elections out of polling places as much as possible. His proposed legislation would set aside $40 million for ballots to be sent in “postage prepaid, pre-addressed return envelopes.”
Voters would still have the option to cast a ballot at a polling place.
“I think this is, unfortunately, a once-in-a-lifetime crisis that we’re facing,” Boyle said Thursday, citing projections from medical professionals on how the virus might spread. “If that were to unfold, you’re talking about a situation where I think it would be unrealistic to have in-person voting on April 28.”
Boyle said he has heard support for the idea from his Democratic colleagues, but not from Republicans who control the state House.
Mike Straub, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, said “nothing specific is being pursued just yet related to coronavirus, but discussions are underway.” He added that “pursuing any particular election proposal at this point would be premature.”
Boyle disagrees. “I think legislatively we have to move on this next week or the week after to have a primary in late April,” Boyle said. “If this bill doesn’t pass, it becomes a realistic option that we don’t have a primary on April 28.”
Boyle noted that Pennsylvania has polling places in schools, nursing homes, and rehab centers, all locations with potentially vulnerable populations. In Ohio, state election officials relocated more than 100 polling places from nursing homes before that state’s primary next week.
State election officials scramble
New Jersey’s Division of Elections saw this coming. Sort of.
The agency held a meeting in September to game-plan for potential election-disrupting events. One of the two dozen scenarios was a public health emergency prompted by a fictional measles outbreak. More than 400 people participated, with delegations from 14 states.
“We are fortunate that we are going to have some time to prepare,” said division spokesperson Alicia D’Alessandro, since New Jersey’s primary isn’t until June 2. “We’re really grateful that we have been thinking about these types of issues and how we might respond.”
New Jersey now has a working group, drawn from the division, county officials, and state health officials to discuss preparations for the primary.
Pennsylvania is also having “comprehensive discussions” about the primary, including the Department of Health, the governor’s office, the General Assembly, and county officials, according to Wanda Murren, a spokesperson for the Department of State, which oversees elections.
“Our focus is on best ways to protect the integrity of the election while safeguarding public health,” said Murren, pointing voters to the state’s new mail-in ballot option, which does not require an excuse for not showing up at a polling place.
Pennsylvania Republican Party spokesperson Charlie O’Neill on Thursday called absentee and mail-in ballots "great ways to ensure one’s vote is counted if concerned about heading to the polls.”
A campaign without campaign rallies?
State Sen. Sharif Street, vice chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said the immediate focus is on safeguarding election-related events.
“We have started talking about making sure we don’t do any events that inadvertently accelerate the spread,” said Street, who represents Philadelphia.
Health officials have encouraged campaign events to include as much space as possible — at least three feet between people, not the typical packed campaign rally, according to Street, who also pushed the “no-excuse” absentee ballot option.
“Some people who don’t want to get out, particularly seniors, may not want to get out into public places, so for them absentee voting is very important,” he said.
Changes are already under way. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s appearance at the National Constitution Center on Tuesday was a scaled-down, closed-to-the-public event after Biden canceled a rally in Cleveland. Biden will hold a virtual town hall Friday from Illinois.
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, stood in a roped-off area about 30 feet away from Biden on Tuesday and took note of how strange it was compared with normal rallies.
“Everybody’s afraid to go anywhere,” Brady said Tuesday. “How are we going to have an election? If I’m still around. My God.”
Biden closes field offices to public, directs staff to work from home
The Biden campaign will close all field offices and its headquarters in Philadelphia to the public, according to an internal campaign memo obtained by The Inquirer.
All of Biden’s staff will work from home starting this weekend and the campaign will coordinate travel home for staff members wishing to return to their permanent residences.
“Our campaign will continue to organize voters across the country through phone banking, text messaging, virtual events, and other distributed organizing models,” the memo read.
The campaign will continue to hold smaller events like round-tables, house parties, and press statements, where public health officials advise they are permitted, as well as virtual events, like Friday’s virtual town hall. All fundraisers will also become virtual fundraisers.