10 questions about the 2020 election during the coronavirus pandemic, answered

March 18, 2020, 2:56 PM UTC

Markets are bracing for recession, hospitals are banning elective surgeries to prepare more beds for ill patients, and Americans are hoarding toilet paper and frozen vegetables, as they prepare for weeks of self-quarantine. As the growing panic produced by the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the U.S., it’s easy to forget that the U.S. is also in the midst of an incredibly consequential presidential election. 

But even in the midst of unprecedented chaos, the Democratic primary has trudged on, and eventually, the general election will also begin in earnest. But what does a process that typically entails large crowds, handshakes, and baby kissing look like in the age of social distancing? How do people cast votes at crowded polls when President Donald Trump has asked them to stay six feet apart from each other? A lot of how this will pan out is still unclear, but there are some answers. 

Here’s what we know.

An election worker walks inside the poling station during the Florida primary election at South Pointe Elementary School in Miami, on March 17, 2020. Chandan Khanna—AFP via Getty Images

1. Will the primaries be postponed?

Some already have been.

Ohio announced late Monday evening that the state would postpone voting on Tuesday to a later date. Ohio health director Dr. Amy Acton said she was ordering the closure of polling locations in order to “avoid the imminent threat with a high probability of widespread exposure to COVID-19.” It’s unclear when voting will take place, but likely in June. 

Georgia, meanwhile, has moved its primary from March 24 to May 19; Kentucky moved its primary from May 19 to June 23; Louisiana moved from April 4 to June 20; and Maryland moved its primary from April 28 to June 2. 

So, yes, states are allowed to postpone their primaries into June (June 9 to be exact) and they have done just that. We’ll likely see more postponements as the virus spreads. 

What does it all mean? Well, it could mean a very long primary season. One that leads straight into the convention.

Empty envelopes of opened vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary are stacked on a table at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020. Jason Redmond—AFP via Getty Images

2. Can’t voters just mail in ballots?  

Here’s the thing, orchestrating a state-wide election is an incredibly difficult task that takes months, if not years, of planning, training, and security tests.

Changing the entire system quickly is unwise (see: Iowa). It’s also tricky because each state has its own rules about how voters can cast their ballots. Some allow for mail-in submissions, others let voters stagger into their polling places over a few days, while others still enforce strict one-day-only voting rules. 

Still, we’ll likely see some court challenges in states where there are restrictions on mail-in ballots. In Florida, for example, some voters rights groups are currently in court asking for an extension of vote-by-mail ballots and other accommodations for voters who don’t want to go to polling stations. Some states are also allowing curbside voting, where Americans won’t have to leave their cars to cast a ballot. 

We can expect more changes coming: Wyoming announced recently that its April 4 caucus will now all be by mail.

Joe Biden (L) and Bernie Sanders (R) greet each other with a safe elbow bump before the start of the 11th Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020. Mandel Ngan—AFP via Getty Images

3. Can the Democratic party just pick the nominee? 

What if the coronavirus reaches worst-case scenario levels and the nation is essentially quarantined? If people are too sick to go to the polls? Could the Democratic National Committee just pick someone? 

Well, technically, yes.

The DNC could cancel the rest of the primaries if they wanted to, but there is little to no chance that would ever happen. If it did, pledged delegates would vote for whoever their districts voted for and unpledged delegates and superdelegates would likely be free agents, opting to vote for whomever they’re compelled to vote for at the nominating convention.

2020 Republican National Convention (RNC) signage is displayed inside the Spectrum Center during a media walk-through in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

4. What about the conventions?

Democrats are expected to hold their party’s nominating convention in Wisconsin this June and Republicans will hold theirs in North Carolina in late August. 

The conventions involve lots of large crowds, mingling ,and partying: things that don’t mix well with pandemics. As of right now, neither party has canceled its convention (which involve years of planning, millions and millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs, not to mention the huge economic boost to the cities they hold them in). 

Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez said in a recent interview with Axios that he wasn’t even “contemplating” canceling.

The DNC’s current charter requires that delegates be at the convention in person to cast their votes for the nominee, but those rules could be changed quickly by the convention’s Standing Committee on Rules. It could be possible, in an extreme case, to allow for delegates to vote online. 

The Republican National Convention, meanwhile, is closely monitoring the situation but has not announced any changes to their August activities. 

As of now, conventions will most likely go forward but with downsized events.

The floor of the Fiserv Forum is seen during a media walk through ahead of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 7, 2020. Eric Baradat—AFP via Getty Images

5. What happens if there’s a contested convention, but the event is canceled?

If neither Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders or former Vice President Joe Biden is able to clinch 1,991 pledged delegates by June and both Democratic candidates stay in the race, it’s likely that Democrats will hold a contested convention. That means that there’s a second round of voting with unpledged superdelegates to help determine the nominee. 

If the convention is canceled, it’s likely that these votes will take place online, instead of in person. 

A woman wearing mask and protective gloves leaves after cast her vote during the Florida Democratic primary election at Miami-Dade Public Library Little Havana in Miami, Florida, on March 17, 2020. Eva Marie Uzcategui—AFP via Getty Images

6. Could the coronavirus impact voting in the general election?

This would be incredibly difficult. Unlike primary voting, the date of the general election is set by federal law. That means that in order to change the date Congress would have to pass a law and the President would have to sign that law. That law could then be challenged in the courts.

What could change is the way that people vote, which is set on a state level. States could make it easier to vote by mail or allow for curbside voting. 

Staffers post cancelation notes on the doors of Huntington Center in Cleveland, Ohio after Democratic presidential candidate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders canceled a rally for COVID-19 (Coronavirus) concerns on March 10, 2020. Megan Jelinger—AFP via Getty Images

7. How are campaigns changing their plans because of the virus?

Many campaign staffers are working from home and all rallies have been canceled. For now, most events are taking place online. Both Biden and Sanders have held “digital rallies” and “digital town halls.”

On Monday night, Sanders hosted a live-streamed concert with performers like Neil Young.

Campaigns are also encouraging volunteers to stop knocking on doors and to utilize their phone-dialing and texting systems instead. 

Joe Biden, sided by Dr. Jill Biden, delivers remarks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, PA on March 10, 2020. Bastiaan Slabbers—NurPhoto via Getty Images

8. Are campaigns earning less money/spending money differently?

While it’s still too early to see how campaigns have changed their spending habits, they’re certainly spending less on events and on travel—both major expenditures. TV and social media ad buys, however, should remain the same. 

The lack of fundraising events could adversely impact Joe Biden, who accepts PAC money, and the lack of door-knocking and in-person grassroots fundraising could negatively impact Sanders’ earning potential. 

Donald Trump (C) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (R), joined by members of the Coronavirus Task Force, field questions about the coronavirus outbreak in the press briefing room at the White House on March 17, 2020 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer—Getty Images

9. Will we see a debate between Trump and the Democratic nominee?

That will be something that the President and nominee have to work out, but it’s possible that the debate will be in a closed studio without a live audience. 

Mike Mastrian, director of the Senate Radio and TV Gallery, disinfects the podium prior to a press briefing at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, March 17, 2020. Saul Loeb—AFP via Getty Images

10. How are candidates staying safe?

Democratic candidates say that they are following the precautions that most Americans are being told by the CDC to follow. They are practicing hand washing, staying six feet away from others when possible, and aren’t shaking hands. 

Trump has said that he is being closely monitored by White House doctors and that he has tested negative for the virus.

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