How to hold nominating conventions during a pandemic

The Deer District and Fiserv Forum are vacant on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Milwaukee. Like so many other major events around the country that have been postponed because of the Coronavirus pandemic, there are still questions whether the Democratic National Convention scheduled for July will happen at the Fiserv Forum.Mjs Corona Dnc4

The coronavirus has thrown many parts of society into complete chaos, including the nomination of a presidential candidate to run against President Trump in November. But frankly, any problems with the nominating process will be much more easily surmounted than the problems we face controlling this virus or rebooting our economy.

Let’s take them in order.

As of today, 15 states have postponed their primary elections to later in the spring. Eleven states will now hold primaries on June 2, including six that have recently moved, thus creating a mini Super Tuesday. No one should be surprised if more states move to that date or later. At the beginning of the outbreak several states held primaries on March 17 and gave us an early glimpse of the challenges and opportunities ahead. In Illinois, the process was a mess—polling places were changed, officials declined to show up, and turnout was down. But Florida and Arizona reported record-high turnout, thanks in part to record levels of voting by mail and few problems at the polls. If the Wisconsin primary goes ahead on April 7 we can hope that they have a robust absentee ballot vote and that they devise ways for people to vote safely. If grocery stores and drug stores all over the country are adapting, we can certainly figure it out for polling places. For instance, in the District of Columbia, the mayor has asked everyone to request an absentee ballot and they are preparing for a large number of absentee voters. By June 2 we can hope that states print extra absentee ballots and figure out the procedures needed to move people through a polling place, practice social distancing, and sanitize machines.

In the meantime, state Democratic (and state Republican) parties are having to elect delegates to the convention. This is an often-overlooked part of the primary process—while delegates are allocated to winners on primary night, the actual people who will attend the convention in those slots are usually elected in some sort of meeting that takes place after the primary, sometimes months after the primary. The state Democratic parties are in the process of changing or postponing the dates of those meetings, modifying the rules governing those meetings and exploring vote-by-mail options to get delegates elected during a time of social distancing.

And now to the convention itself. Joe Biden drew attention to the looming problem the other day when he said, “It’s hard to envision the convention going off as originally planned.” If the pandemic rages on into the summer, the Democratic National Committee has several options. One is to move the date of the convention until later in the summer. It was originally scheduled in mid-July so as not to run up against the Olympics, which have been postponed. Another option is to conduct a virtual convention with or without a large gathering later in the summer.

In the past the DNC has been hesitant to allow online voting, and with good reason. Plans for the Iowa caucuses and for the Alaska primary to use online voting were rejected by the DNC Rules Committee as too vulnerable to possible mischief by Russians or any other hackers with an interest in skewing election results.[1]

But a convention vote is not a private vote. On the contrary, when delegates are certified they are certified along with their presidential preference—in other words, their presidential preferences are public knowledge based on the results of the primary in their state. So if, as the votes were being transmitted, hackers managed to change the Florida vote to 100 for Biden instead of 162 for Biden, it would draw immediate attention and a challenge. In the 12 conventions that have taken place in the post-reform era, the existence of binding primaries (in both parties) has meant that the final vote at the convention is generally known weeks ahead of time. Even in the conventions where front-runners faced tough challenges all the way to the convention, the eventual votes changed almost not at all.[2]

Finally there is the terrible possibility that, given the severity of the coronavirus and the advanced age of all the possible candidates, including the president, one of them will get seriously sick and even die. If this happens before the nominating convention, the convention, virtual or not, will turn into a confusing mess. If it happens after the convention, the Democratic or the Republican National Committee will meet (perhaps virtually) to choose a nominee. Both political parties have rules and procedures for meeting and selecting a replacement for their nominee. This has only occurred once, in 1972 when Senator George McGovern’s vice presidential nominee, Senator Tom Eagleton, dropped out of the race. A meeting of the Democratic National Committee was held in early August of that year to vote on his replacement, Sargent Shriver, former Director of the Peace Corps.

Nominating a candidate for president in the middle of the greatest national challenge America has faced since 9/11 will not be easy. Political parties and state election officials will be called upon to put their best foot forward. But the challenges are primarily logistical and they pale beside the challenge of stopping this virus, finding cures, formulating a vaccine, and putting the economy back on track—challenges which are literally life-or-death. Both political parties have had contingency plans in place for many years in case their nominee needs to be replaced before the general election. States have been loosening their absentee ballot restrictions for years as well and the movement to vote by mail has everyone thinking about this. In short, in contrast to the current administration, political parties and election officials are planning ahead. Both parties will have a nominee for president.

[1] The author is a member of the Rules Committee of the Democratic National Committee.

[2] Governor Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford all the way to the opening of the 1976 Republican convention and Senator Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter all the way to the opening of the 1980 Democratic Convention.