A voter fills out his ballot, taking advantage of early voting on Sunday in Steubenville, Ohio.

A voter fills out his ballot, taking advantage of early voting on Sunday in Steubenville, Ohio. Gene J. Puskar / AP

Election Agency Issues Guidance on Handling Primaries and Caucuses During Coronavirus 

"Election officials are contingency planners by nature," says the agency. 

As the novel coronavirus outbreak occurs during the presidential primary and caucus season, the nation’s elections information clearinghouse issued guidance last week to mitigate public health risk during voting. 

The independent and bipartisan Election Assistance Commission, which certifies voting systems and provides best practices in election administration, published a list of resources for state election officials, voting system vendors and federal agencies on Thursday on how to deal with the coronavirus. Primary and caucus season kicked off on Feb. 3 and runs until June 7, which is followed by the Democratic convention in July and the Republican one in August. So far only Louisiana and Georgia have postponed their primaries because of the coronavirus.  

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said on ABC News on Sunday that it could take “several weeks to a few months” before things go back to normal. Then on Sunday night, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there should be no large events or mass gatherings with 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. 

“Election officials all over the country are having to make difficult decisions on how to best serve their voters,” EAC officials told Government Executive on Monday when asked if they are recommending that states delay their primaries or caucuses. “The EAC is doing all it can to provide information to assist the states in making informed decisions. We will continue to work with federal, state, and local partners on this evolving situation.”

Among the resources the EAC put out are: guidelines on how to properly sanitize voting machines by vendor type, best hygiene practices for poll workers, compilations of state-specific guidelines, CDC’s guidance for voting locations, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s recommendations to mitigate cyber risks during the pandemic, the EAC’s continuity of operations plan and previous disaster preparedness plans. EAC officials said they will continue to add and update materials.  

EAC officials also told Government Executive that “many states have options to vote by mail,” so voters should look for their specific instructions on how to do so. Additionally, EAC Commissioner Don Palmer pointed out on Twitter that the National Conference of State Legislatures published a list of emergency voting policies, statutes and executive actions states are taking in response to the coronavirus. 

During the White House’s coronavirus task force press briefing on Monday afternoon, President Trump said that postponing elections, while up to the states, would be “not a very good thing” and would be “unnecessary.”

“Election officials are contingency planners by nature and are continually working to make sure elections are accessible, secure, and accurate, and that voters are safe,” said the agency on its website. “The U.S. Election Assistance Commission understands election officials and voters may have questions and concerns regarding the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. As part of our clearinghouse function, we are working with federal partners and election officials to compile and offer resources.”

On Friday, Louisiana postponed its primary from April 4 to June 20 because of the coronavirus. Georgia followed suit shortly after by delaying its primary from March 24 to May 19. Upon the news about Louisiana, over 100 voting rights groups released a statement that acknowledged the health risks for poll workers and voters, but raised concerns that changing the dates and locations of primaries and causes could “create barriers to, and in some instances the denial of, citizens’ right to vote.” As a result they called on the “federal government [to] provide the necessary funding and guidance for states to prepare and ensure there are no barriers to the ballot due to COVID-19.”

While there is guidance from the CDC and EAC, so far, the coronavirus funding bill that President Trump signed into law on March 6 and the additional legislation the House passed early Saturday morning that the Senate and president signaled they would support, do not include any funding for election-related matters.  

Primary and caucus dates are set by the states, but the general election must be the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, according to an 1845 federal law. Additionally, the U.S. Constitution says that the new president’s term must start on Jan. 20 and the new Congress’ term must start on Jan. 3.

Josh Douglas, Kentucky University law professor who specializes in election law and voting rights, tweeted that even if Trump declared martial law, “that would likely not give him power to postpone [the] election or delay [the] end of his term on Jan. 20, 2021,” citing the 1866 Supreme Court decision that determined that Constitution is not suspended by martial law. Douglas told Government Executive that he does not believe a presidential election has ever been postponed since the 1845 law was passed.

This story has been updated with comment from President Trump's press conference