The current coronavirus outbreak in the midst of the Democratic primary, and the recent tornado that struck Tennessee on Super Tuesday, both raise a thorny question: In times of crisis, who decides when — or indeed, if — to postpone elections?
Since 2012, Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin has been pushing for legislation that would let him regulate state elections in “emergency situations.” The bill was first filed after Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, the kind of large-scale disaster that might require delaying an election.
Entrusting that power to one person — no matter who it is — goes too far. It might be more cumbersome to go through the courts in order to delay elections, but it’s a layer of protection to ensure that only genuine emergencies interfere with the central act of democracy.
Galvin’s legislation seeks blanket “authority to regulate elections in emergency situations, including but not limited to when the governor declares a state of emergency or a federal agency declares a state of emergency or disaster exists” that includes the power to postpone or suspend elections. While the bill provides that such actions “shall not exceed 45 days” it adds, “unless the Secretary determines” that another 45-day extension is required.
Much of the original legislation dealt with problematic weather conditions — including blizzards — and even the possibility that nonmilitary first responders might be called to other states and, therefore, might not be present on voting day.
Now the legislation has been updated and “expanded to incorporate the concerns surrounding the Covid-19 virus,” Galvin’s legal counsel Michelle K. Tassinari wrote in a memo.
“The possible impacts include low voter turnout, insufficient poll workers and unavailability of polling places,” Tassinari said.
All of that that would indeed be concerning. But there are other remedies, especially for a disaster like a disease outbreak that doesn’t just strike overnight. Early voting procedures for major elections and fewer restraints on acquiring absentee ballots have certainly eased many of those concerns.
Delaying elections is already possible. As Tassinari notes, “In the past, court action has been necessary to either reschedule or halt a municipal election when the weather made it either impossible or dangerous to conduct.”
Frankly, that’s not such a bad thing. Even if you believe that Galvin would never abuse this authority he is seeking, the law needs to maintain strong safeguards around everything related to voting. The courts provide a perfectly good emergency option — and a better alternative to one-man rule.
There are also steps that Galvin can take to ensure that an outbreak doesn’t interfere with voting rights in upcoming elections, including four special elections scheduled for March and about 150 local elections set for April and May. Galvin’s office told State House News Service that it will treat those who are self-quarantining the same way they do those admitted to hospitals, allowing someone else to pick up an absentee ballot for that voter.
And if the crisis becomes truly extreme, the option to go to the courts is still there. Still, voters in Tennessee didn’t let a tornado stop them. Massachusetts held an election on Sept. 11, 2001. A decision to delay an election is bound to be controversial, and should be a last resort that requires the approval of a court.
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