Democratic convention postponed 1 month, but primary vote is still on for next week
Wisconsin still holding primary vote next week but the schedule is now heavily focused on May, June
The Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) announced on Thursday that the party's convention to select its presidential nominee will be postponed until the week of Aug. 17.
The convention had been originally scheduled for July 13-16.
"In our current climate of uncertainty, we believe the smartest approach is to take additional time to monitor how this situation unfolds so we can best position our party for a safe and successful convention," said Joe Solmonese, CEO of the DNCC.
"During this critical time, when the scope and scale of the pandemic and its impact remain unknown, we will continue to monitor the situation and follow the advice of health-care professionals and emergency responders."
The committee said due to the unique situation that many options would be considered if necessary including "adjusting the convention's format to crowd size and schedule."
Democratic front-runner Joe Biden on Wednesday said he believed the convention would not take place in July, but told NBC News that party conventions, primaries and elections were held in other turbulent times.
"We were able to do it in the middle of a Civil War all the way through to World War II and still have public safety," Biden said. "We're able to do both."
The bottom line, Biden has said, is that "we should listen to the scientists" and that the 2020 election, from conventions to voting methods, "may have to be different."
Tradition dictates that Democrats, as the party out of power, hold their convention first. Republicans are scheduled to gather Aug. 24-27 in Charlotte, N.C.
Trump vowed to stick to schedule
Republicans, meanwhile, are expressing confidence they can pull off their convention as scheduled in August, but party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel still allowed for the possibility that the pandemic could upend plans.
U.S. President Donald Trump said last week there was "no way" the Republican convention would be moved, but the comments were made before the White House began to talk frankly about grim death toll projections numbering into six figures.
Neither Democratic nor Republican leaders want to sacrifice the boost that can result from an enthusiastic convention gathering. Trump thrives on big rallies and has obviously missed that part of his routine amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Trump held six rallies between the end of his impeachment trial in early February and March 2, signalling that he was keen on a heavy schedule of campaigning in 2020 ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
A traditional convention, with a nationally televised nomination acceptance speech, could be even more critical for Biden, who has been relegated recently to remote television interviews from his Delaware home, unable to draw the kind of spotlight that Trump commands.
Several primaries postponed, but not Wisconsin
The Democratic race also isn't officially over, another complication. Biden holds a prohibitive delegate lead that makes him the prospective nominee, but Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders remains in the race and insists he has a "narrow" path to the nomination.
With many states pushing back their primaries, Sanders potentially could block Biden from accruing the required delegate majority until late June, just weeks before the convention.
According to the New York Times, 15 primary contests have been rescheduled, with dates pushed back into May and June.
But Wisconsin still plans to hold its primary on Tuesday April 7. A federal judge signalled Wednesday that he won't postpone or make any major changes to the Wisconsin primary to alleviate concerns that voters and poll workers could contract the coronavirus.
"I'm not sure it's my place to to assume the steps taken by the state or not taken by the state is an impingement on an individual's right to vote. That's what I'm struggling with," U.S. District Judge William Conley told attorneys for the Democratic National Committee and a host of liberal-leaning groups that they haven't shown how the pandemic has truly hampered people's voting rights.
Wisconsin poll workers have reportedly been quitting in droves; more than 100 municipalities lack enough staffers to run even a single polling site.
Sanders joined a chorus of complaints Wednesday, issuing a statement saying the election should be delayed.
Many states ill-prepared for mail-in voting
Democrats, including Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, have hopes for using the crisis to expand voting by mail face firm Republican opposition as well as significant logistical challenges. In some states, it would amount to a major revamp of their voting system just eight months before an election.
Vote-by-mail boosters already lost the first round of the fight. Democrats tried and failed to insert a broad mandate expanding voting by mail in the last week's federal stimulus bill, a proposal that could cost as much as $2 billion US. Instead, the bill included $400 million to help states adjust elections however they see fit before November.
"Practically every single Tuesday, we see another state reacting to their inability to run their election in the middle of this incredible health care pandemic," said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the first state to vote entirely through the mail.
Every state already allows some form of voting by mail, but only six Western states are set up to allow all-mail voting in every county, according to Wendy Underhill at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
While Republicans have backed the trend toward mail voting, the party remains suspicious of widespread use of the method.
"The things they had in there were crazy. They had things — levels of voting that if you ever agreed to it you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again," Trump said of the Democrats in a Fox News intrerview this week.
Many Republicans argue that a major expansion of mail-in voting opens up new concerns about fraud and security and some see Democrats as trying to take advantage of a crisis.
"Some of these are things that have been kind of partisan issues for a long time and now are being presented as a kind of response to COVID-19," said Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose.
"I've called that crisis opportunism. I don't think making big policy changes in response to a crisis is the right thing to do."
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There are other, practical hurdles. Mail-in voting requires an expensive upfront investment in machines to process mail ballots, poll workers and election judges to be retrained to use the devices and verify voters' signatures on their envelopes and other wrinkles.
"You can't just flip the switch and go from one system to another," Underhill said.
She said official ballots must be printed on durable paper stock, and states may not be able to secure enough for November without sufficient advanced planning.
"You can't just get it at Kinko's."
It's also not clear that voting by mail is necessarily pandemic-proof.
Mail voting can also delay election counts, especially in California, the largest state in the nation, which allows voters to mail in their ballots on Election Day. The state is still counting votes from its March 3 primary, in part because the virus outbreak has scrambled staffing in county elections offices across the state.
With files from CBC News