NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - With much of America on partial lockdown, the coronavirus pandemic is altering nearly every aspect of people's daily lives. The pathogen is also having an immediate and possibly permanent impact on how the nation chooses its leaders.
Lauren Jewett is a special education teacher in Louisiana, the first state to announce the postponement of its Democratic primary due to coronavirus. She is concerned issues could linger all the way to November's general election in which President Donald Trump will face the eventual Democratic nominee.
"How will we vote? How will we register others to vote? How do we canvass [neighborhoods for a candidate]?" Jewett asks. "This could affect the outcome of November's presidential election and that election could affect the country for a very long time."
Louisiana has emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot with one of the world's fastest growth rates for confirmed infections. Within a week, the state went from reporting fewer than 100 cases to nearly 1,400 on Tuesday.
Even before Louisiana's exponential growth rates were recorded, on March 13, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards ordered the state's April 4 primary election postponed until June 20.
Ten other states and territories have since followed suit in delaying their primaries. Many Louisiana voters say they understand the need to protect public health, while some also note that their voice in the primary process effectively has been muzzled.
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The Decision to Postpone
"Postponing the primaries was absolutely the right thing to do, given the circumstances," says voter Ernesto Noguera. "People's lives and health have to be the top priority."
New Orleans voter Marielle Pichon adds, "My only frustration is that other states like Arizona, Florida and Illinois went forward with their elections. That feels irresponsible."
Tyler Brey, press secretary for Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, tells VOA that Louisiana officials weren't focused on what other states were doing.
"We made our decision based solely on the safety of our state's voters," he explains, "and that includes our poll workers -- many of which are above the age of 65 and most in danger."
Brey notes that Louisiana opted to postpone the primary before early voting had begun in the state, saying, "We weren't yet in the middle of an election, and we didn't want to halt one after it started."
State law includes a provision for the postponement of elections. The secretary of state can communicate an emergency to the governor, who, in turn, can issue an executive order to postpone.
Brey says Ardoin, a Republican, began that process after examining other voting options, such as conducting an election via mail-in, or absentee ballots.
"I don't think people realize all that goes into that process," Brey says. "There wasn't enough time to get ballots printed, to get the proper envelopes, to get them sent out to voters and to have them returned."
While the Republican Party's nomination of Trump for another term in office is a foregone conclusion, the Democratic presidential contest was, until recent weeks, wide open. Even now, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders remains in the race despite former Vice President Joe Biden's seemingly insurmountable lead in delegates to the Democratic National Convention in mid-July.
Postponing primaries not only erodes voters' impact on the nominating contest, it has the potential to hobble states' participation at the convention.
Current Democratic National Committee (DNC) rules dictate that all nominating contests must be completed by June 9 and that all delegate rosters must be submitted by June 20 - nearly four weeks before the start of the Democratic National Convention in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
DNC rules state that missing the deadlines could result in a state losing half of its votes on the convention floor. A spokesperson for the DNC says their Rules and Bylaws Committee is examining the rule in light of extraordinary circumstances brought about by COVID-19, but that no decision has been made on whether to suspend the stipulation.
The prospect of losing representation at the national convention after postponing the primary contest is disheartening to many Democratic voters in Louisiana, especially given that Trump is heavily favored to carry the state in November.
Voter Pichon says she feels that choosing the Democratic nominee is the only area in which she has a real voice in deciding who becomes president.
"I don't feel like I have a say in November's election," she says, noting that America's electoral college system awards all delegates from a state to the candidate who wins that state's popular vote. "In the primary, though, margins matter. Every vote counts towards gaining delegates."
Pichon adds, "Cutting our delegates in half due to a pandemic is disenfranchising."
Working Toward Solutions
"We've heard quite a bit from voters who wonder why we don't have access to other voting methods like mail-in voting or an absentee ballot system," Brey says. "It's something we're definitely looking at now, but it's not something we'd have ready for June's primary."
Many voting rights organizations say they appreciate the challenges states face planning for elections during a pandemic. At the same time, they are pushing states to ensure democratic participation is not curtailed.
"State officials are making incredibly complicated decisions trying to prioritize public health while protecting democratic processes," says Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "What has been made abundantly clear by this crisis is the importance of providing options for voters who cannot register in person or vote in person on election day at their polling place."
Short says measures should include online and same-day voter registration, expanded early voting to avoid large and crowded waits, expanded vote-by-mail and absentee ballot programs, the recruitment of poll-workers from less at-risk populations and curbside voting.
Late Wednesday, the U.S. Senate passed an economic bill that provides $400 million to help states prepare for elections during the pandemic. A coalition of more than 150 local and national organizations led by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Humans Rights, believes much more is necessary, requesting $2 billion to make voting safer and easier for all.
"If our government officials fail to act, voters may have to choose between their health and their vote come November," Short says, "and no one should have to make that choice."