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COVID-19 threatens 2020 election; WVU political scientist urges feds to explore voting alternatives

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Patrick Hickey WVU Photo

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As states postpone their primary elections in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, one West Virginia University political scientist is calling on President Donald Trump to assemble a bipartisan task force to consider voting options for November’s general election.

It’s to prepare for a worst-case scenario, said Patrick Hickey, assistant professor of political science in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, if the COVID-19 crisis exacerbates or lingers through the year, resulting in uncertain consequences for American democracy. 

Already this week, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Ohio erred on the side of caution and postponed their primary elections. 

“These could be the last in-person elections for the primary season,” said Hickey, referring to Arizona, Florida and Illinois holding their primaries Tuesday (March 17). “I think every state needs to grapple with running primary elections without in-person voting. There are ways to do that. Some states have voting by mail.”

On Wednesday (March 18), West Virginia officials announced they weren’t delaying the May 12 primary, at this time, and encouraged residents to participate in early or absentee voting. 

Some states, such as Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Hawaii, conduct their elections entirely by mail. 

With the proper safeguards in place, Hickey believes that voting electronically or using mail-in ballots should be explored as remote possibilities because the virus’ path and aftermath remain unknown. 

“There could very well be health concerns for in-person voting in November,” Hickey said. “I think the president needs to create a bipartisan task force to think it through.”

Though not widely utilized across the country, remote e-voting – casting your ballot on the Internet via app or website - is always a provocative proposal. Yet the threat of hackers and voter fraud tend to shy governments away from adopting those platforms, Hickey said. 

“If it can be done securely, it would be a great system,” said Hickey, whose area of expertise examines how presidents work with Congress. “Can you imagine picking up your phone in November and casting your votes on it? I think you’d see higher voter turnout rates – I’d predict 80 or 90 percent of registered voters.”

Delaying Election Day itself would be no cakewalk. 

Passed by Congress in 1845, the Presidential Election Day Act requires the presidential election to be held in each state on the “Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November of the year in which they are to be appointed.” The 2020 election falls on Nov. 3. 

One option would be for both the U.S. Senate and House to agree on legislation, which would need the president’s signature, to modify the Presidential Election Day Act to establish a new date. 

Another possibility, though extremely unlikely, would be if the legislatures and governors in all 50 states approved new measures for selecting presidential electors by Nov. 3. These procedures might bypass citizens altogether and allow state legislators to decide how to allocate their state’s electoral votes.

The 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution must also be considered. It states that a president’s four-year term ends on Jan. 20. This means an election, if moved, must take place before that date. 

Primary elections, on the other hand, are less rigid. Those contests are a product of the party system, meaning Democratic and Republican leaders in each state dictate their own procedures in how voters select candidates to move onto the general election. 

This is why some states hold only primary elections while others host caucuses. 

“Parties can change the rules and bylaws on their own,” Hickey said. 

“But with the general election coming up, what we really need right now is to try to get ahead of this. That means Democrats and Republicans working together to agree on fair ways to run the election in a secure, safe way.”

Throughout the history of American voting, no federal election has been postponed or rescheduled. Americans voted during the Civil War, the Great Depression, and both world wars. 

“Since the beginning of this country, for almost 250 years now, through times of war and times of peace, we’ve had our regularly scheduled elections,” Hickey said. “The United States of America has always been a model for representative democracy throughout the world. And we need to figure out way to uphold that model in this unusual time of crisis.”



CONTACT: Patrick Hickey
Assistant Professor, Political Science
WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences


Jake Stump
Director, Research Communications
University Relations-Communications

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