Mar 17, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus crisis forces states to prioritize mail-in ballots

Some voters wore gloves to cast early ballots Saturday in Chicago. Photo: Noreen Nasir/AP

Mail-in ballots are becoming states' saving grace for their 2020 primary contests as the coronavirus crisis deepens in the U.S.

Why it matters: Amid CDC guidance that gatherings shouldn't exceed 50 people, the states voting today — Arizona, Florida and Illinois — all have multiple confirmed cases of the illness and are pushing citizens to consider their mail-in options.

  • Ohio was also set to vote on Tuesday, but has declared a public health emergency, postponing its primaries because of concerns about coronavirus.
  • Its state Democratic Party chairman David Pepper released a statement that included another alternative: conduct the primary entirely by vote-by-mail.
  • In a Monday press release email sent out from Joe Biden's campaign about an Ohio tele-town hall, it concluded: "If you're a member of an at-risk population or have been exposed to a diagnosed case of coronavirus, we encourage you to explore absentee ballots and vote by mail options, including emergency voting exceptions in your state."

The big picture: Coronavirus has presented a new analog twist to the election — a race that was expected to be so technologically advanced, Iowa once considered adopting digital caucuses.

  • Its lasting effects could mean polling places and voting lines are on the chopping block for future U.S. contests.

The state of play: While Louisiana and Georgia have postponed their primaries, Washington is a vote-by-mail state, which saved its primary from crumbling last week as coronavirus cases and deaths climbed in their state.

  • Wyoming suspended in-person voting for its April 4 caucuses, instead asking residents to vote by mail.
  • Illinois' governor told NPR he was considering moving to a mail-in primary.
  • Turnout among Democrats in Arizona has surged thanks to early mail-in ballots, per a spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party.

The Florida Democratic Party has been pushing Floridians to vote by mail since before the 2018 midterm elections because they desperately needed a last-ditch effort to boost turnout.

  • More Democrats voted in 2018 than they did in 2016, the party's executive director Juan Peñalosa told Axios, and they say it’s because of the $1 million they spent in 2018 to specifically encourage registered voters who don't vote to do start doing so by mail.

"A lot of campaigns and institutional Democrats were upset that we were spending all that money on this program," Peñalosa told Axios. "Now we're just doubling down."

  • Roughly 2.6 million people voted by mail in Florida in 2018, and turnout increased by nearly double-digit margins from the 2014 to 2018 midterms.
  • Ahead of this year's election, the state party has held a Twitter town hall answering "myths" around voting by mail and the party chair said that over 1 million Florida Democrats have signed up to vote by mail.
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