The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted the 2020 election calendar, prompting states to shift their presidential primaries and other votes.
These changes also include shifts away from the traditional visiting of polling places. Primary elections do not have the same rate of turnout as general elections, but this primary season may still provide insight into how Americans will vote in November’s election.
Tuesday, April 28 should have hosted six primaries: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Instead, the only state that voted was Ohio. After cancelling its March 17 in-person primary, Ohio conducted its election almost entirely by mail. Gov. Mike DeWine initially proposed June 2 as a substitute, but the Ohio legislature moved the official primary date to April 28. Ballots postmarked by April 27 will be counted.
New York state cancelled its presidential primary entirely. Over a dozen other states are weighing how to proceed with their primaries.
How states shifted their primaries after the onset of COVID-19
As of April 27, 15 states and territories have either delayed their primaries or switched to a vote-by-mail system with extended deadlines.
Rescheduled from April 28 to June 2; Mail-in absentee requests expanded to include those who are self-quarantining or social distancing
Rescheduled from March 24 to May 19 to June 9
In-person voting cancelled (April 4), Mail-in voting due May 22
Rescheduled from May 5 to June 2
Cancelled, but initially rescheduled from April 28 to June 23
Rescheduled from April 4 to June 20 to July 11
Rescheduled from April 28 to June 2, primarily mail-in ballots with limited in-person polls.
Rescheduled from June 2 to July 7
Democratic presidential primary cancelled, but initially rescheduled from April 28 to June 23. (Primaries for other offices will occur.)
Rescheduled from April 28 to June 2
Rescheduled from April 28 to June 2
Rescheduled from May 12 to June 9.
In-person caucuses canceled on April 4, Mail-in voting extended to April 17.
It’s difficult to measure COVID-19’s impact on primary turnout. Comparisons to previous election cycles are always tough; some years had competitive Democratic and Republican races, which brings more people to the polls. In contrast, this year only had a competitive Democratic primary race, which, by early April, had whittled down to former Vice President Joe Biden.
It's also worth considering that primary turnout lags far behind the turnout for the general election. Primary turnout hit a record high in 2008, with 30.4% of all eligible voters heading to the polls. The presidential voting rate for that year, by contrast, was 58.2%. Keeping in mind these historical trends, how have states voted during the coronavirus crisis?
On March 17, just as the coronavirus crisis was beginning to accelerate across the US, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois held their elections as planned.
In Arizona, where presidential primaries are closed to party members, the Democratic contest drew 48.8% turnout compared to 37% four years ago.
Florida also has closed primaries. There, 68.2% of the 3 million ballots cast in this year’s presidential primary were mail-in or early votes. In the 2016 presidential primaries—which featured competitive races in both parties—52% of the 4 million ballots were not cast at in-person polling places on Election Day. This year’s presidential primaries drew 30.2% of Florida’s registered voters, while turnout in 2016 was 46.2%.
In Illinois: 28.4% of registered voters cast ballots in the March 17 primary. This is the third-lowest turnout for a presidential primary in the past four decades. However, four of the previous six primaries saw turnouts of less than 30%.
Voting in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis: Wisconsin
Wisconsin held its primary–in person–in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.
After moving through state courts to the Supreme Court, Wisconsin voted as scheduled in its presidential primary election on April 7. According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, 34.3% of voters turned out to cast their ballots. While this was smaller than the voter turnout in the spring 2016 election (47%), it was similar to past presidential primaries.
Even before the pandemic, the percentage of votes cast in-person has declined over the decade. The number of states offering early voting, vote-by-mail, and no-excuse absentee voting increased over the past 10 years.
The total number of US citizens who voted early, absentee, or by mail more than doubled between 2004 and 2016: from 24.9 million in 2004 to 57.2 million in 2016.
In 2016, two in five of all ballots were cast remotely.
The number of voters casting early ballots more than doubled across the above timeline: from nearly 10.2 million in 2004 to 24.1 million in 2016.
In 2016, 16 states had a combined total of greater than 50% of votes cast early, by mail, or via absentee voting.
The states that have, in the past, switched to mail-in voting had years to prepare. Wisconsin revealed the difficulty of trying to quickly accommodate remote voting or in-person voting while simultaneously respecting social-distancing guidelines.
In recent weeks, the US Election Assistance Commission, a bipartisan and independent federal commission established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), addressed some of the challenges that COVID-19 may present if still prevalent during November’s general election.
Costs: Sending ballots by mail increases printing costs for an election. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed by President Donald Trump on March 27, includes $400 million in additional Help America Vote Act (HAVA) emergency funds, which will help states prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus during the 2020 federal election cycle.
Poll Workers: If COVID-19 doesn’t abate by the November general election, or states hold in-person primaries like Wisconsin did, another concern is for those working the polls.
EAC’s 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey reported that roughly 58% of poll workers during the 2018 midterms were aged 61 or older. This is the same age demographic that may be at an elevated risk for serious complications from COVID-19, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
Accurate Voter Data: Even states that have adopted remote voting pre-COVID-19 experience issues with undeliverable mailings. Oregon, which has sent ballots to every voter since 1998, has 2-3% of its ballots returned as undeliverable in federal elections. Washington, which also sends every voter a ballot, has approximately 10% of its ballots returned as undeliverable, according to EAC.
While the voting process is determined by state and local governments, not the federal government, a national vote-by-mail system is being discussed in Washington, D.C., including by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and President Trump. According to a recent report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, there are a number of bills that would either fund or require states to offer early or mail-based voting.
With or without federal action, COVID-19 and its associated social distancing guidelines may play a significant role in November’s voting process. How many people vote—and how they vote—in the remaining primaries may hint at what to expect in the general election.