WASHINGTON—The coronavirus outbreak is colliding with the presidential election and the ramifications are being felt on the campaign trail and at polling places.
“Campaigning and conventions could change,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine’s law school, raising the possibility of virtual nominating conventions this summer if the outbreak continues.
The effects were clear Tuesday night, when former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders both canceled election night rallies in Cleveland after Ohio’s governor discouraged large gatherings. On Wednesday, Biden’s campaign said it had formed a six-person public health advisory committee to provide “expert advice regarding steps the campaign should take to minimize health risks for the candidate, staff, and supporters.”
After consulting with those experts and at the request of local officials, the Biden campaign announced it was shifting “large crowd” events scheduled for Friday in Chicago and Monday in Miami to “virtual events.” And after initially resisting changing Trump’s schedule, the White House and his campaign on Wednesday night cancelled or postponed three upcoming events.
At the same time, state election officials are taking steps to adjust voting procedures to keep the virus from spreading. Washington state told voters not to lick the envelopes of their absentee ballots, Ohio is moving polling places for next Tuesday’s primary from senior centers to avoid infecting older people, and Chicago will make paper ballots available for voters who don’t want to use touch screen machines in the Illinois primary, also next week.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon on Wednesday called for $500 million in federal funding to support emergency state vote-by-mail efforts in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
“No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk,” Wyden said in announcing his bill. “When disaster strikes, the safest route for seniors, individuals with compromised immune systems or other at-risk populations is to provide every voter with a paper ballot they can return by mail or drop-off site."
States that held primaries on Tuesday scrambled to make adjustments as the number of coronavirus cases in the country increased.
“As if we didn’t need one more thing with this election to make it difficult,” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said last week. Although experts don’t know how long the virus can remain in saliva, Wyman urged people to use a damp sponge instead of their tongue to seal the envelopes with their ballots to protect ballot counters.
In Missouri, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said a few polling locations were moved from senior residential facilities to other locations including one in Kansas City which was moved Monday afternoon before Tuesday’s voting.
States holding primaries next Tuesday have had more time to prepare and already are taking steps. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose directed local election authorities to move all polling locations from senior residential facilities to other locations. The change affects more than 140 polling places.
Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton said moving the polling locations away from senior living centers will “protect our most vulnerable citizens.” Such actions, she said, “really are the things that will help save lives.”
Ohio also will allow curbside ballot drop-off so people can minimize face-to-face contact and will provide money for polling places where local officials aren’t able to buy hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes to clean the voting machines. Acton encouraged at-risk people to vote early to avoid crowds.
Sudden changes to election procedures could lead to long lines and confusion, Hasen said.
“You’ve got to have good planning, and you have to have good messaging. If people don’t know where to go, then they can be disenfranchised,” he said.
States should give voters alternatives like voting by mail in the general election, Hasen said, and lawmakers need to make plans now in order to ensure Americans are ready to vote this fall in case the outbreak continues.
“As you make plans closer to an election, there’s more of a sense that decisions might be made for political gain," he said. “Better to make the decisions now under the veil of ignorance before we know who might benefit or be hurt by particular changes in election rules.”
The coronavirus also could alter campaign strategies for candidates.
President Trump likes to hold large rallies and was scheduled to launch his “Catholics for Trump” coalition on March 19 in Milwaukee, an event that his campaign said “will bring together Catholics from across the nation.” Vice President Mike Pence was pressed Tuesday about whether he and Trump would cancel rallies to protect attendees.
“That will be a decision that’s made literally on a day-to-day basis,” Pence told reporters.
But on Wednesday night, Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s campaign, tweeted that the Milwaukee event would be postponed “out of an abundance of caution because of the coronavirus outbreak.” Also Wednesday night, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said Trump cancelled upcoming events in Colorado and Nevada for the same reason.
Pence said earlier this week that he and Trump would continue to shake hands, despite recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid doing so during viral outbreaks.
“In our line of work, you shake hands when someone wants to shake your hand,” Pence said Tuesday, “and I expect the president will continue to do that, I’ll continue to do it.”
Biden and Sanders took a different approach, voluntarily canceling their Tuesday election night rallies.
Biden’s communications director Kate Bedingfield said the campaign made the move “out of an abundance of caution.” Biden also canceled a get out the vote event scheduled for Thursday in Tampa and instead will speak about coronavirus from Wilmington, Del.
And when Biden and Sanders face off in the next Democratic debate on Sunday night in Phoenix, they’ll do so without a studio audience, the Democratic National Committee said.
Hasen said the virus could even necessitate virtual conventions for Republicans in Charlotte, N.C., and for Democrats in Milwaukee this summer. That would be easier for the Democrats if a nominee is determined by the primaries and there is not a contested convention, he said.
Joe Solmonese, chief executive officer of the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee, said Tuesday that organizers are in communication with local, state, and federal authorities and will continue to monitor the situation.
“Ensuring the safety of convention attendees and local residents is — and will always remain — our top priority,” he said. “Every convention necessitates developing a number of contingency plans to provide for a variety of scenarios.”