Protecting the sanctity of our elections in time of pandemic

As it has most everything, the COVID-19 virus and the response to it has upended the presidential election process, with traditional campaigning suspended and a strong possibility that the race to select the Democratic nominee could be frozen in place for weeks.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has a large 1,174-882 delegate lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but still well short of the 1,991 needed for the nomination. If the primary were progressing normally, Biden would likely soon have a lead so large it would make him the de facto challenger to President Trump.

But few things are progressing normally these days.

Connecticut’s primary had been scheduled, along with several other states in the Northeast, for April 28. It has been moved to June 2. The decision was the right one. Perhaps by April’s end the state will have the COVID-19 outbreak enough under control to be easing off on some of the tough restrictions that have been implemented to keep people separated. Maybe not. But in any case, it would not be a good time to have folks gathering in lines to vote, or poll workers exposed all day to the general public. There is no question many would be discouraged to vote.

Several other states have joined Connecticut in moving back their primaries, including Rhode Island, Maryland and Indiana, all also set for June 2. As of Tuesday, New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania were still on the primary schedule for April 28, but seemed likely to delay their votes. It could well be that the nation does not see any more primary votes until at least May.

While the delays make sense, the primary elections must take place on the reassigned dates. The Democrats are scheduled to select their nominees for president and vice president at their national convention, July 13-16 in Milwaukee, Wisc. To assure the validity of the party nominees, voters need the chance to cast ballots.

That means in Connecticut the Office of the Secretary of the State Denise Merrill should create contingency plans for going forward with the June 2 primary even in the event the COVID-19 virus has not eased its grip. The most obvious backup plan would be mail-in voting via the absentee ballot provision. Colorado and Oregon mail ballots to all registered voters before elections and their experiment with mail-in voting has been successful. Hawaii, Washington and Utah also have forms of voting my mail.

Merrill notes that Connecticut has the most restrictive absentee voting rules in the nation, grounded in the state Constitution. We have editorialized that those rules should be amended to allow early voting and easier absentee or mail-in voting.

But there may be room to allow extensive, or universal, absentee voting in these special circumstances. The state Constitution allows absentee ballots "because of sickness, or physical disability or because the tenets of their religion forbid secular activity."

That was written with the individual in mind, but the "sickness" of the general community, and an emergeny situation to combat that sickness, could apply. An advisory opinion of the state Supreme Court might be sought now so planning can begin.

Looking beyond the primary contests, the nation and state must assure that the Nov. 3 general election proceeds. Expectations are that the COVID-19 crisis will be largely behind the state and nation by then, but given the unexpected reality we are collectively experiencing, more unpleasant surprises would hardly be shocking.

One thing the nation and state cannot postpone is the scheduled election to select its leaders, including the president. Nothing is more critical to the sustained health of our representative governance. That’s why states should be planning now if — God forbid — traditional voting remains too dangerous come early November.

In this spirit, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon, both Democrats, have introduced legislation that would require states to provide self-sealing envelopes with prepaid postage to all voters who request absentee ballots. Further, it would provide state financial help to pay for vote by mail to assure a fair election can take place.

Mandating how states vote would raise state’s rights issue, but providing guidance and incentives in the form of financial help makes sense.

A few weeks ago, the idea we could ever face a constitutional crisis over efforts to postpone a presidential election would have seemed farfetched. But then again, so would the idea of about 160 million Americans being told, or required, to shelter at home.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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