This editorial has been updated to reflect that fact that the governor and lawmakers are making progress on a resolution.
The requirements of social distancing are making every facet of life more difficult to maintain — including democracy. Our fragile system of governance is not immune to being ravaged by COVID-19. The crisis has required lawmakers to come up with solutions for telelegislating and finding ways for the public to participate remotely. Perhaps the biggest challenge for American democracy is conducting physical elections.
Though many states have already cast ballots in presidential primaries, Pennsylvanians are just five weeks away from voting, not just the presidential primary but in several important down-ballot races, as well.
Pennsylvania recently expanded vote-by-mail, but voting in person is still the primary mode by which most Americans, in general — and Pennsylvanians, in particular — cast a ballot. That is almost impossible to do without breaking the current CDC social distancing guidelines — putting democratic participation in direct conflict with public health.
That conflict is currently percolating in the Pennsylvania state House, where county election officials from all over the state are asking Gov. Tom Wolf to delay the primary — pleading for more time to make the needed arrangements to allow voting to happen. Some county election officials proposed that the delay could facilitate an all-mail primary election, which would require a change in the law. Wolf said he is considering postponing, though it is unclear whether he has the power to do so.
In Ohio, where the primary was scheduled for last Tuesday, the conflict surrounding the election was on full display. In the hours ahead of voting on Election Day, the state’s Supreme Court allowed the executive branch to close polling locations out of health concerns, overruling a lower court that maintained the executive branch lacked authority.
Whether the solution is an all mail-in primary, postponing voting for several weeks or both, Pennsylvania legislators must come together at this moment of crisis to work with the best interests of all Pennsylvanians — and Pennsylvania’s democracy.
Moving to an all mail-in election leads to serious questions on voter disenfranchisement. For example, low-income voters may have less stability in maintaining fixed addresses, making access to mail ballots an issue. Also, research shows that voters of color are more likely to participate in in-person voting than mail. The transition should come with funds for outreach to ensure participation.
The coronavirus may still be with us in November. That why The Inquirer’s report that the governor and lawmakers were making progress over the weekend on legislation to postpone the primary until June is good news -- with a proviso. Simply delaying the Pennsylvania primary without creating an alternative voting mechanism will mean the same problems could arise during the general election. Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota and Ron Wyden from Oregon, a state that already has an all mail-in system, introduced legislation to make the general election all mail.