Atlanta Journal Constitution
By Greg Bluestein and Mark Niesse By Georgia elections officials postponed the presidential primary scheduled for next week because of the coronavirus pandemic, becoming the second state forced to push back a vote in the race for the White House due to the outbreak.
The state rescheduled the vote previously scheduled for March 24 until May 19, the same date as the primary for a sweep of local, state and federal offices, elections officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Saturday.
Early voting for the primary, which began on March 2, will resume again shortly before the new voting date. Louisiana on Friday pushed back its April 4 primary to June 20.
More than 279,000 Georgians have cast early ballots in the contest, which features a matchup between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic ballot and President Donald Trump as the lone contender on the GOP ticket. All votes already cast will be counted in May.
The delay of the presidential primary is a major step for state election officials concerned that crowds could gather at polling places and spread the disease caused by coronavirus, which has sickened 66 Georgians and killed one.
Mounting concerns about how to safely hold the election as coronavirus spreads led to intense negotiations between Raffensperger’s office and Democratic Party officials over whether to hold the vote as scheduled.
“Our priority is to protect the health and safety of all Georgians and to ensure that as many Georgians as possible have an opportunity to vote,” said Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia. “Continued in-person voting could compromise both goals.”
Health authorities have advised people to avoid large gatherings, and everything from national sporting events to school have already been canceled. Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency in the state earlier Saturday.
Besides Georgia’s significant role in picking the Democratic Party nominee, the presidential primary was also the first statewide test of a new $104 million voting system, which adds paper ballots to elections for the first time since 2002.
Voters will pick their candidates on touchscreens and then can review printed-out paper ballots before depositing them into scanning machines. But continuing the March 24 vote as scheduled became increasingly untenable as the coronavirus spread.
Faced with public health dangers and the potential for depressed turnout, the secretary of state’s office decided to wait out the infection and give voters more time to vote by absentee by mail if they choose to do so.
In addition, Kemp and others have urged elderly people to steer clear of public gatherings to avoid the disease, and elections supervisors worried that poll sites would pose a risk to Georgia poll workers, who are on average 70 years old. About 300 have already said they would no longer be able to work.
Still, some candidates are worried that public health crisis will still be raging by late May, forcing more complications and another potential delay. Carolyn Bourdeaux, a Democrat competing for a suburban U.S. House seat, called on state officials to administer the May 19 election by mail if the coronavirus outbreak grows worse.
“It’s pretty simple,” she said. “Voting shouldn’t put your health at risk.”
She was echoed by a half-dozen other candidates contacted by the AJC over the weekend, including Stacey Evans, a former gubernatorial contender now running for an Atlanta-based Georgia House seat. “What Georgia really needs is a robust, easy-to-access vote-by-mail program,” said Evans. “Because, while we all hope that the situation with the coronavirus will have improved by May 19, or April 27 when early voting would begin, we really don't know for sure.”
Converting to mail-in voting would be a tremendous undertaking, requiring ballots sent to all of Georgia's 7.2 million voters and emergency changes to election regulations.
The state already allows any voter to mail in an absentee ballot instead of voting in person, a point that Republicans often highlight.
“Georgia already has great early voting opportunities that will not have large crowds as well as easy absentee ballot access,” said Mark Gonsalves, a GOP U.S. House candidate who called Bourdeaux’s proposal a “silly idea.”
No dry run
Georgia typically holds its presidential primary in early March with other “Super Tuesday” states, but pushed the date this year to March 24 to give officials more time to install thousands of touchscreen voting machines that will be used for the first time.
The Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger talks to the media in front of old voting machines while waiting for the largest shipment of Georgia’s new secure paper-ballot voting machines at the Dekalb County Voter Registration & Elections offices in Avondale Estates on Monday December 30th, 2019. 2839 units are to be delivered for Dekalb County. (Photo by Phil Skinner). Local officials, who have buzzed about the possibility for days, quickly applauded the decision to delay the presidential primary.
“It’s a responsible thing to do,” said Gwinnett County Democratic Party Chairwoman Bianca Keaton. “Right now, people are really concerned for their health and it’s an appropriate step to make sure we’re prepared.”
The decision comes as elections officials in the four states holding presidential primaries this Tuesday – Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio — say they have no plans to postpone voting but announced precautions such as extending absentee voting deadlines and cotton swabs to use on touchscreen machines.
“They voted during the Civil War,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “We’re going to vote.”
Both Democratic presidential candidates were unlikely to visit Georgia before next week’s vote, as the pandemic forced state party officials to scrap a fundraising gala that Biden was set to headline. Sanders’ campaign also canceled the opening of an office in southwest Atlanta.
The suspense of the Democratic contest had all but evaporated after Biden’s string of victories over Sanders, who has still vowed to stay in the race. But Democratic officials were initially eager to continue with the vote, which they also saw as a dry run for the November election.