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Pennsylvania may delay its presidential primary election because of coronavirus

It’s unclear whether Gov. Tom Wolf, using emergency powers, could unilaterally change the date of the April 28 election.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.Read moreCommonwealth Media Services (custom credit)

Pennsylvania officials are still considering moving the date of the April 28 presidential primary election due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday.

“I’m not sure what impact it’s going to have on the primary," Wolf said during a news conference. “Obviously, we want to keep people safe, so to the extent that the state needs to move the April 28 date to another date, other states have already done this, Pennsylvania is certainly taking that into consideration.”

Georgia and Louisiana have already postponed their primary elections, and a handful of other states are considering it, including New York, which is scheduled to hold its primary on the same day as Pennsylvania. Ohio’s governor on Monday recommended that Tuesday’s primary election in that state be rescheduled for June and said he would go to court to seek the change.

Elections officials in several Pennsylvania counties welcomed the possibility, saying postponing the primary election would allow them more time to prepare while also protecting public health.

“Having an in-person election on April 28 will be exceedingly difficult,” said Philadelphia’s top elections official, Lisa Deeley, who chairs the city commissioners. The commissioners had already canceled poll worker training sessions through March 22, and Deeley cited those cancellations and new restrictions announced Monday.

» READ MORE: A special election in Bucks County won’t be delayed because of coronavirus, judge rules

“I strongly believe that Gov. Wolf should delay the election until late May, or preferably sometime in June, and use the additional time to convene a working group with county elections personnel to determine the best way to hold an election that balances public health with voter access,” she said in a statement.

In addition to concerns around the spread of the virus, officials worry that some locations that normally act as polling places may be unwilling to do so this year, and that poll workers — who tend to be older and thus more vulnerable — may not want to work on election day.

Forrest Lehman, elections director for Lycoming County, said he hoped the state would also move to an entirely vote-by-mail election to prevent people from gathering at polling places. That could not happen, though, without delaying the election, he said, because his county and others would need time to prepare for a much higher number of mail ballots than currently available.

Wolf had said Saturday that it was “too far out for anyone to make a decision” regarding moving the primary election, but described the option as “on the table.” His focus, he said then, was on ensuring people remain safe.

But it’s unclear whether Wolf, using emergency powers, could unilaterally change the date of the election. State law sets the presidential primary election for the fourth Tuesday in April, which may mean lawmakers would have to amend the statute to postpone the election.

Wolf on Saturday said officials had agreed that Tuesday’s special election for a state House seat in Bucks County should be postponed, and that discussions were ongoing regarding two other special elections to be held Tuesday. But later that day, state House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) announced the elections would continue as planned. Bucks County officials on Monday filed an emergency court petition seeking an injunction to postpone the special election, but a judge ruled against the petition late Monday.

“It doesn’t make much sense for us to ask residents to practice social distancing and to stay home from work, but then also encourage them to go out to vote in the middle of a public health crisis," Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, chair of the Bucks County Board of Commissioners, said in a statement before the ruling. "This is no time to play games with people’s lives.”

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, said a range of state officials, including from the department, the governor’s office, the Department of Health, the state legislature, and the counties were having “comprehensive discussions” focused on “best ways to protect the integrity of the election while safeguarding public health.”

Like others, she emphasized that Pennsylvania now has no-excuse mail-in voting that allows any registered voter to request a ballot by mail, removing the need to visit polling places to cast ballots. Those ballots can be requested at