What will Democrats do if there’s a major coronavirus outbreak in the middle of the primaries?


I have no deep thoughts about what the contingency plans might or should look like. Just thought it’d be worth asking the question in light of this BuzzFeed piece from a few days ago noting that in-person primary voting for American expats has already been canceled in China and South Korea. When the disease finally starts spreading aggressively here — and it does seem to be a “when,” not an “if” now — events that concentrate large groups of people will be a death trap. Japan has already closed schools for a month to try to arrest the disease’s spread; we might see some American cities do the same thing, along with formal closings or popular boycotts of sporting events, movie theaters, restaurants, and, er, polling places.

Polling places might be especially dangerous, in fact, given older Americans’ habit of high turnout. Based on the evidence thus far, COVID-19 is especially lethal to seniors.

Super Tuesday is days away and then another large-ish slate of states votes a week later. Democrats will bank plenty of votes before they need to worry about this. But let’s say cases are beginning to multiply rapidly by March 15. Fully 30 jurisdictions will remain on the calendar at that point. If you’re the leader of a state Democratic party, what do you do? BuzzFeed:

The closing of the two voting centers in China, one in Shanghai and another in Beijing, was announced on February 18 in response to local ordinances restricting travel and public events, as well as a State Department recommendation to US citizens in the country to stay indoors, according to Maya Hixson, a Democratic National Committee spokesperson. Democrats Abroad announced on February 26 in-person voting was cancelled in South Korea, too…

“People can absolutely vote from home! With this recent outbreak, we are encouraging people to do this more than ever,” Angela Sittaro, a Democrats Abroad Italy organizer, told BuzzFeed News in a Facebook message…

There are ways of handling the risk, according to Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. You can separate people more, such as extending voting over several days to thin out the crowds, regularly wiping down voting surfaces, or using disposal covers. “I don’t see us having to cancel the normal political process, but we may have to make changes,” Redlener told BuzzFeed News.

One thing they could do is just proceed as scheduled and count on voters to weigh the risk of showing up to vote. Turnout would plunge; high-enthusiasm candidates like Bernie would probably benefit, as their fans might be more likely to brave contagion for the cause. But the “keep calm and carry on” approach is dodgy since the party would still need lots of volunteers to man polling stations on Election Day. Show of hands: Who wants to stand around in a confined space being visited by hundreds of strangers while there’s a deadly virus circulating?

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Another possibility is letting people somehow vote from home, as the Democrats Abroad suggested. Er, how? Set up a website on the fly, maybe, and then allow Democratic voters to log in remotely and cast a ballot? That would be a security nightmare, starting with the task of somehow ensuring that the person logging in really is the person they say they are. And Democrats’ recent history with election technology is not great.

Spreading voting out over several days, as proposed in the excerpt, would also reduce the concentration of voters. But again — confined space, lots of older people, and momentarily lots of uncertainty about how precisely this disease is spread. Who wants to risk it? And how many precincts are available to hold unplanned multi-day voting? How many election volunteers are willing and able to suddenly devote days to the effort?

One drastic possibility would be to take stock of where the race is once a state party decides that holding the election as scheduled would be too risky. If Bernie pulls the upset in South Carolina on Saturday and then wins big on Super Tuesday, his nomination will seem like a foregone conclusion. It’d be silly to put people’s lives at risk to carry out a process whose ending now seems certain. Just one problem: Joementum appears to be alive and well in SC and Florida, and it might produce a bunch of southern wins for Biden next Tuesday. There may soon be a real race for the nomination. How do you cancel primaries when the outcome is in doubt?

Another drastic possibility is to cancel individual primaries as needed and allow some small delegation of Democrats from the state to choose a candidate instead. Either the state party leadership could choose, or it could hold a conference call with the local Democratic Party chairmen from around the state and take a vote that way. You can already see the problem with that approach, though: Democratic leaders tend to prefer moderate candidates like Biden to radicals like Bernie. Imagine the reaction from Berniebros if Sanders was ahead in delegates before primary voting was suspended due to the virus and then ended up losing the nomination because a series of state party establishmentarians preferred Joe.

An extremely outside-the-box suggestion: The DNC could fund official polls of each state and award delegates proportionately to the results of the poll. Better yet, if they can afford it, they could hire multiple pollsters to conduct the same poll of the same state and then average the results to reduce the risk of an outlier. This would be an imperfect alternative to voting, to put it mildly, as we all know how Election Day results can deviate from pollsters’ predictions. But it’d be more democratic than letting state party leaders choose a winner. The polling in the three early states thus far has been pretty good in anticipating the actual outcomes.

I’m open to suggestions. Meanwhile, another thing to consider: At what point do the actual candidates stop holding events and cutting back on personal appearances to protect their own health and the health of their supporters? These big Bernie and Trump rallies are impressive and all but they’ll be heinously dangerous once COVID-19 is on the move. Among the group of four people from which the next president is all but certain to be drawn, the youngest is Trump at age 73, then Biden at 77, then Sanders and Mike Bloomberg at age 78. Contracting coronavirus would be a mortal threat to any of them given their age. For their own safety and the safety of their fans, campaigning this year will need to be done differently. And then there’s the general election in November — which, let’s not think about it. Not yet, at least.

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