Recent news reports say that Gov. Wolf and the Legislature have reached a deal to move the state’s primary from April 28 — five weeks from now — to June 2, due to the extent of the Covid-19 crisis.
But as a long-time GOP political consultant, I believe that is a mistake. The state could proceed with the April primary and still keep voters and poll workers safe. Here’s why:
Pennsylvania has an expanded absentee ballot system and a new vote by mail option this year. Before covid-19 took over the news cycle, the Wolf administration was touting the early success of the vote by mail program.
The state could expand that program and allow voters to deliver completed ballots either to their courthouse or via a walk/drive-in/drop-off system at their local voting precincts on the 28th. This would limit the number of people entering each polling place, while still allowing voters to utilize their familiar, and local, precincts. Some polling locations, such as senior centers, may not want to offer their facilities for the primary — but they could still participate in a drive in/drop off program.
For those voters who still voted in person, we could practice social distancing there. Remember that turnout in a primary, even a presidential primary, rarely rises to even 50% of Republicans and Democrats. And if we can still visit the grocery store, we can take a few minutes to vote and keep our democracy moving forward, even if many of us have now had their lives and livelihoods put on hold.
Postponing the primary would have real consequences for all candidates, but especially congressional candidates, as it would lengthen their primary and push back the date they could utilize monies they raised for their general election. Federal candidates can only raise $2,800 per person per election (primary and general). Delaying the primary means they have to wait that much longer to access their general election money, since they can’t spend money raised for a general election until after the primary. A delay would provide an even bigger advantage to self-funders and better-known/funded candidates.
What if the primary is postponed now and then needs to be postponed again in June? Better to bear down now and get through the primary, so candidates and voters can move on to the November general.
The country has weathered severe crises before and has not had to delay elections. Yes, the 9/11 attacks — which occurred on New York’s 2001 primary election day — did cause that election to be postponed, but just for a couple weeks. In a presidential year like 2020, our primary date is moved up three weeks. In other years we would have voted on the third Tuesday in May, which this year is May 19. So if the Governor and the Legislature do decide to postpone the primary, perhaps it could be moved to that date.
While Pennsylvania will recover and rebound from this Covid-19 crisis regardless of when we hold our primary, keeping it as scheduled on April 28 would send an important message that an vital part of our culture — voting and our democratic system of government — still has some semblance of business as usual.