August 6th, 2020

The Nation

Answers to your questions about the primary, election timing, vote-by-mail and more

 David Weigel

By David Weigel The Washington Post

Published March 30, 2020

In the old world, the one we lived in before the coronavirus, primary day in Puerto Rico would have been yesterday, March 29. A few days earlier, Joe Biden would have probably won Georgia and announced an "insurmountable delegate lead" over Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. President Donald Trump would be holding rally after rally, flying into swing states to prove the enthusiasm gap between him and the Democrats.

That world doesn't exist anymore, so it's a good time to answer some questions from readers. Many of them still had questions about the primary, which is not over, although no delegate lead as large as Biden's has ever been overcome by a challenger. A few had questions about how elections will go forward during a pandemic, something that has not happened since 1918. Luckily, most of the questions people have about this election have answers.

Q: "Does the administration have the legal right to postpone an election due to this pandemic?"

A: This was a very popular question and, luckily, pretty easy to answer. Primary elections are run by state governments and in some cases, state parties, and they can be moved rather easily. But the federal election, while administered by state governments, has its date set by federal law. It would take a bipartisan act of Congress to change the date - possible, but not likely. It would take an amendment to the Constitution to delay the inauguration of whoever wins the 2020 election - possible, and even less likely.

But the short answer is no: The Trump administration cannot postpone an election all by itself. The circumstances that would get people thinking about that might be a second coronavirus outbreak in October. But we have six months before early voting gets underway in key states, and there is time for states to come up with contingency voting plans. Could they fritter that time away and fail to fund it? Could some states put comprehensive vote-by-mail in place while other states don't? Yes and yes.

Q: "What happens to delegates of candidates who won them and later dropped out? Warren has not supported either Biden nor Sanders. Does she still hold on to the delegates she won? Or can she choose where they go?"

A: It's complicated, and it's one reason that the delegate counts you see collected by media outlets can diverge so much. While 3,979 delegates are being allocated by voters in primaries and caucuses, most state parties select the actual delegates - the people who will represent the candidate at the party's convention - after the voting is over. In Iowa, for example, five candidates got delegates, but only two of them remain in the race. When activists meet at their local conventions, they will elect the actual flesh-and-blood humans who will represent Biden and Sanders and delegates.

In most states, this will be a boon for Sanders. Every candidate who has quit the race has endorsed Biden, except for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Had they remained active candidates they could have released those delegates to Biden at the convention. Instead, their departure changes the math for selecting delegates; in the nine states where candidates besides Biden and Sanders won delegates, the local conventions will base their selection on the two-way vote between Sanders and Biden instead.

Q: "Is there any possibility that Andrew Cuomo could emerge as a draft candidate for the Democratic ticket?"

A: Outside Twitter, no, there is not any organized effort to give the nomination to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The primacy of New York in American media, and in the outbreaks so far, has clearly given Cuomo the best coverage of his career. Even the glow around his push for same-sex marriage in New York state was dimmer than this. Other Democratic governors have impressed voters with their pandemic response, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, but Cuomo is clearly the star.

Still, let's be honest: The "draft somebody else" question is less about Cuomo in particular than about the worries surrounding potential Democratic nominees who would turn 80 in their first terms.

Were Biden or Sanders to leave the race now, the remaining candidate would secure almost all remaining delegates and have enough to win the nomination on the first ballot of a convention. If that candidate became unable to serve, delegates would be free to select someone else, and it would not matter whether that person had run in the primary. Were both candidates to continue, but the candidate with the most delegates became unable to serve, it would be up to those delegates to decide whether to nominate someone new, or whether to walk over and nominate the runner-up.

On their current trajectory, Democrats are not heading for a contested convention; that is, one of their remaining candidates should have enough delegates to win the nomination outright. And some of the "draft Cuomo" chatter has quieted as Biden has become more assertive, doing interviews from his studio.

Q: "Do you see any chance of Sen. Sanders accepting defeat and joining with VP Biden? Isn't he only harming himself, his 'movement' and the Democrats' ability to unite against President Trump?"

A: Before the conoravirus outbreak, Biden was on track for a 400-delegate lead this weekend and had a shot at clinching the nomination outright April 28. The delays in state-by-state primaries have pushed his "clinch" date to June 2 or perhaps later. A miraculous Sanders turnaround is possible, and Sanders has pointed to the "unprecedented" nature of the delayed primaries to justify staying in the race. In 2008 and 2016, later primaries basically followed the demographic trends of early primaries. Of course, there was no pandemic in either year; no major global event changing the way politics worked.

So it's an open question whether Sanders gains more from staying in than he would be quitting. In delegate terms, he is set on repeating what he did four years ago and staying in the race so delegates are bound to him for as long as possible. Were he not to do that, some county Democratic conventions could start electing all-Biden slates of delegates even in places that Sanders won. Sanders allies argue that he should win as many delegates as possible to influence the platform; some allies outside the campaign argue that he should stay put in case some deus ex machina brings down Biden, as they once hoped that the FBI probe of Hillary Clinton's email server would bring her down before the 2016 convention.

Even after a defeat, Sanders would have plenty of sway inside the party, for the simple reason that Democrats are worried about his supporters taking a walk. Some of the organizations that backed Sanders are already pressuring Biden to move in their direction, on the same premise that he needs them to get younger and more left-wing voters excited about voting. Sanders has not taken that approach, exactly; he has not criticized Biden in any way since the March 17 primaries and has held his own video broadcasts to focus on what he wants the coronavirus response to look like, not to demand a particular set of changes from Biden.

In the long run, if the primary ends amicably, Sanders could get some small concessions from Biden in exchange for the promise of rallying Sanders voters behind the ticket.

Q: "Who would benefit from mail-only elections, Republicans or Democrats?"

A: It's a good question because partisans believe they have the answer already. That's one reason Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., argued that universal vote-by-mail, which Democrats unsuccessfully tried to fund in the coronavirus response bill, would be "the end of our republic as we know it." Before the crisis, some Democrats saw vote-by-mail as part of a suite of election reforms, with automatic and same-day voter registration, that would help the party by default. Those policies are frequently opposed by Republicans.

The research on how vote-by-mail affects party performance is actually inconclusive. Laws that suppress turnout or voter activities are typically bad for Democrats; higher turnout can sometimes help Republicans. Anecdotally, however, vote-by-mail has been most popular in states that had strong Democratic leanings or were trending that way: Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Turnout has risen in each state since vote-by-mail was introduced, and Democrats have done well, with Republicans winning a few downballot upsets but losing key races. Yet most of that data comes from 2016 and 2018, two years that went badly for Republicans in Western states.

Crises test the limits of our hodgepodge election system, wherein states have wildly different election systems. Even if the federal government funded vote-by-mail across the country, it would be up to each state to determine how ballots are sent; whether all registered voters get ballots automatically, for example, or whether voters must request ballots. The latter system, which is also the easiest to implement - just build on each state's absentee ballot law - would be the least universal, and probably the worst for Democrats.

Keep in mind that the canvassing, voter registration and even fundraising that both parties planned to spend the next six months doing is on hold, and Democrats had more catch-up to do when it came to changing the electorate.

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