Will the 2020 primary have a big asterisk next to it?

Earlier today, I brought up the easily overlooked fact that Joe Biden was declared the winner of the Washington state primary yesterday. After that, I jumped into the usual rundown of today’s primary elections and what the latest polls were predicting. But I neglected to take into account one huge factor. Ohio’s primary may be postponed until at least June, but Arizona, Illinois and Florida are all voting. But how many people are going to show up at the polls if they’re worried that they’ll be in line behind somebody with the coronavirus?

Admittedly, Arizona only has 18 confirmed cases thus far and no deaths. That may not be enough to scare people very much. But Illinois is up to more than 100 and that number is expanding daily. And Florida is rapidly approaching the 200 mark with five deaths already.

How are voters in those states going to react? They’ve been hearing politicians tell them for the past year that this is “the most important election of our lifetimes,” but we’re told that every four years. Will most voters see casting a ballot in the primary as being worth the risk of running headfirst into the pandemic? I suppose the point I’m trying to make here is that if a large number of people stay home – and I’m talking about at least a 30% drop from four years ago – it could significantly distort the outcomes in these races.

Low turnout elections are always wildcards to begin with because you don’t know how representative the smaller sample will be as compared to the total population. But in the case of the coronavirus concerns and the typical demographics of the supporters of each candidate, there could be some considerable warpage. The people least likely to develop severe symptoms from the virus are younger, healthier folks. Conversely, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions (with a lot of crossover between those two demographics) are the most severely affected and at the most risk.

Now consider that Bernie Sanders commands a lot more of the youth vote, though they haven’t been showing up as strongly this season. Conversely, Joe Biden commands most of the senior vote. If the seniors stay home out of fear of the virus and the young folks show up in normal numbers, that could significantly eat into Biden’s lead, if not erase it entirely. And if Bernie could somehow manage to pull out a win in either Florida or Illinois it would slow down Biden’s steamroller and perhaps pump a little momentum back into Sanders.

But even if that happened, would the results be as “valid” as they would without the pandemic blanketing the news cycle? Technically, yes. But it would certainly raise a lot of questions. We need to remember that after tonight, there are still 25 more states left to vote. That’s half of the nation. And there’s no end of the coronavirus in sight. What if they all have massively lower turnout?

With that in mind, we need to figure out how to make the voting process safer during a pandemic like this so people feel confident enough to go vote. The Brennan Center for Justice has published a set of guidelines and recommendations to accomplish this goal. Here are the general categories they’ve identified. (Emphasis added)

The key recommendations fall into five categories: (1) polling place modification and preparation; (2) expanded early voting; (3) a universal vote-by-mail option; (4) voter registration modification and preparation, including expanded online registration; and (5) voter education and manipulation prevention. We recommend that each state government establish an election pandemic task force to determine how best to implement relevant policy recommendations in their state. State and local officials must understand the laws and emergency rules applicable to their jurisdictions and consider appropriate adjustments to ensure that election officials have the authority needed to accomplish these modifications.

Some of these “fixes” are problematic because they already exist in some places and cause issues. Early voting is one example, and extreme early voting leads to votes being cast without up-to-date information and wasted ballots for candidates who have dropped out. We don’t need more of that. Expanded vote by mail options would be okay provided the option of mailing your ballot up to the day of the election is available. That just means we’ll have to wait longer for the results like we already do in Washington state. We should forget about expanded/online registration because the ability to register isn’t the issue here.

Voter education is a no-brainer and hopefully, that’s already going on. But the big target out of that list would seem to be the opportunity to make changes to how the polling stations operate. Better cleanliness practices should definitely be encouraged, but that won’t solve everything. We need to be able to get everyone in to cast their ballot without all of the people being crowded together.

With that in mind, I have a humble suggestion. I know this will sound a little corny, but bear with me. What if each precinct had one of those machines where people can “take a number” as you do at the grocery store meat counter? And then install one of those “now serving” lights. As people arrive, if there are no open machines or booths, have them take a number and provide a large, open area where they can wait until their number comes up. (Or simply wait outside if the weather is agreeable.) It wouldn’t cost all that much and you could avoid having large crowds jammed in together.

It’s something to think about, anyway. I’d certainly be open to other suggestions as well. But if a pandemic turns out to drastically reduce turnout, we’re going to have to figure out something.

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