OPINION: Having in-person primary voting during a pandemic is dangerous


An application for a mail-in ballot sits on a table. Tribune News Service

This shouldn't need to be said, but assembling hundreds of Americans at polling locations to vote in the middle of a pandemic is a bad idea. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that people should avoid gatherings of 50 or more for the next eight weeks. In response, many states, including Indiana, ordered all restaurants, bars and nightclubs to close their doors to in-person patrons. 

Indiana on Friday became the seventh state to postpone its primary elections, moving the May 5 date to June 2. Mail-in voting remains restricted to absentee voters.  

Despite other states’ postponements, Illinois, Florida and Arizona continued on with their Democratic primaries on Tuesday, with former Vice President Joe Biden winning all three states and cementing his status as the frontrunner for the nomination.

The Democratic Party’s choice to go forward with these primaries encourages voters to violate the CDC’s recommendations amid a global pandemic. It’s irresponsible and incredibly dangerous.

Going forward, all in-person voting in the primary should be replaced with voting by mail to ensure that voters are not forced to choose between performing their civic duty and compromising their own health and the health of others. 

Voters in four states were originally set to participate in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, but Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine filed a lawsuit Monday afternoon to move Ohio's primary to June 2. When a county judge rejected the state’s request, DeWine moved forward in postponing Ohio’s primary by declaring a public health emergency.

DeWine faced criticism for his decision from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who argued in a conference call Wednesday that postponing Ohio’s primary could serve as a dangerous precedent for governors — or even presidents. 

There is certainly a chance that DeWine’s move could serve as a model for an executive in the future who is looking to disrupt the democratic process. However, the risk of that happening is less likely than the near-guarantee of exacerbating the COVID-19 outbreak by allowing people to assemble at voting locations. 

Election officials’ efforts to ensure that each voting location on Tuesday was as safe and clean as possible ran into trouble. In Cook County, Illinois, for example, election judges were promised hand sanitizer and wipes at every polling place, but four hours into voting, at least one judge, Kim Inman, reportedly hadn’t received any. 

Voters weren’t the only ones at risk. Poll workers also had to decide whether it was worth risking their health to show up at their assigned locations. All three states had at least one reported polling place close because no one showed up to work it. 

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, in a statement late Tuesday night, urged all of the remaining primary states to ensure that the option to vote by mail was available to all registered voters. This seems to be a step in the right direction, but it comes too late.

The DNC also warned that states seeking to postpone their presidential primaries may be subjected to a penalty of reducing their allotted delegates to the party’s convention in July. This could have a major effect on the primary’s outcome. 

However, postponing does not go far enough. Epidemiologists have warned that social distancing will likely be required for months, which might mean the remainder of the primary cycle. The only real solution is changing all primaries to voting by mail.

While the damage is already done in Illinois, Florida and Arizona, there is still time for Perez to abolish in-person voting in favor of voting by mail. He should also guarantee that no penalties will be enacted on any state wishing to postpone their primary to give adequate time to establish a system for voting by mail.

Postponing elections and moving to mail-in voting isn’t ideal, and yes, it comes with possible liabilities. But if it's the only way to ensure that more people don’t have to choose between their health and their vote, it’s well worth the risk.

Jerrett Alexander (he/him) is a freshman studying international relations and environmental sustainability. He sits on the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability.

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