Pa. just postponed its primary due to coronavirus. Here's what it means for voters and 2020 campaigns

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Former US Vice President and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19, known as the Coronavirus, during a press event in Wilmington, Delaware on March 12, 2020. - SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS

PHILADELPHIA—June 2 is shaping up to be the Super Tuesday of postponed primaries. Pennsylvania will join 11 states and the District of Columbia in voting that day, after rescheduling its primary due to the coronavirus.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday signed a bill moving the primary back five weeks to allow enough time for people to register to vote by mail, for polling locations to shift and to give election officials time to prepare for an election in unprecedented circumstances.

The law authorizes county election officials to close and consolidate polling places without the usual court approval. (Officials had asked for that flexibility, as they’ve lost polling places and poll workers to coronavirus concerns.) Election officials will also now be able to begin processing absentee ballots earlier instead of after 8 p.m. when polls close, which could have meant elections would take days to call.

With Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and D.C. also voting June 2, it’s been dubbed the Acela Primary.

While the moves are unlikely to derail former Vice President Joe Biden from winning the Democratic nomination, it does mean he’ll need more time to clinch it. Meanwhile, the delay could hurt some candidates running for the state legislature who have limited campaign resources they now need to stretch. For election officials, it’s a welcome extension to prepare for an election that keeps voters and poll workers safe.

June 2 is now second only to Super Tuesday in the number of delegates up for grabs in one day. With few delegate-heavy primaries before June 2 (Wisconsin votes April 7), it also seems likely Sen. Bernie Sanders will stick around, as he’s indicated, despite a narrow path to victory.

Sanders said this week he would attend an April debate if the DNC schedules one, though Biden signaled he wouldn’t. “I think we’ve had enough debates. I think we should get on with this,” Biden told reporters Wednesday on a teleconference.

For Biden, a shifted primary schedule gives him more time to continue focusing on the pandemic and to build up a digital operation that has already shifted to virtual fundraisers, news briefings and television appearances, broadcast from a studio set up in Biden’s Wilmington, Del., finished basement.

Sanders’ campaign said it has the money to continue campaigning in Pennsylvania through June 2. And while virtual events can reach people across states, Pennsylvania director Brooke Adams said the campaign is still focused on virtual organizing at the neighborhood level.

Candidates running to be their party’s nominees in congressional and state races tend to have smaller budgets that now need to last longer.

“It changes things significantly,” said Cathy Spahr, a Democratic candidate for an open state House seat in Delaware County. “There’s a momentum that goes with the race to the primary and it kind of slows that momentum down. Plus, you then have to cut through the noise of the fear — because people are afraid and rightfully so.”

Now that a date has been set Spahr said she can at least decide when to send out mailers or conduct polls. She’d looked into booking a printer but didn’t want to risk putting the wrong date on fliers.

One advantage incumbents at both the state level and in the U.S. House of Representatives have is the ability to mail constituents communications related to COVID-19 in the days leading up to the election. The U.S. House previously had a strict rule prohibiting mass mailings from members in the 90 days before an election. The chamber eased those restrictions for coronavirus-related communications only. Pennsylvania’s state House passed a resolution Tuesday loosening its 60-day restriction on online communication, if it’s related to the virus.

Andy Meehan, a Republican who is running against incumbent Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., sees that as an unfair advantage. Even if the mailers aren’t about the campaign, they’re reaching constituents on the key issue and are signed by a member of Congress up for reelection, Meehan said.

“It’s just another one of these kind of baked in the cake type of things that benefit incumbents,” Meehan said.

Meehan added that he thinks the primary delay actually benefits his lesser-known candidacy.

“This gives me more time to reach people and they’ll be better informed as opposed to getting out of their bunker on April 15 … they’re getting their lives back together not thinking about who to vote for.”

So far coronavirus has affected turnout only in the Illinois, Arizona and Florida primaries; results were mixed. Illinois reported a steep drop while Arizona and Florida, due in large part to early voting and use of mail-in ballots, reported an increase. Moving Pennsylvania’s primary gives voters more time to sign up to vote by mail, which is now open to all voters. (Previously, Pennsylvanians needed an excuse to vote absentee).

The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot is 5 p.m. the Tuesday before the election, online or via mail. Voters can return the ballot until 8 p.m. on election day. Voter registration closes 15 days before the election.

The Pennsylvania Democratic Committee said in an email to supporters Friday that it would launch a campaign this weekend to get people to register to vote by mail.

Whereas vote by mail once was thought to benefit lower-income voters who tend to support Democrats, it’s also something older voters, a large portion of the GOP base, might take advantage of given the virus’ impact on the elderly.

“There’s no downside for engagement with vote by mail,” said Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College. “I think traditionally the idea was it’s an advantage to the Democratic Party but given the realities now and effects [of coronavirus] on older voters I don’t know if it’s as clear as it once was.”

With more time, Borick said, the hope is also that Pennsylvanians feel safer venturing to the physical polls, increasing turnout.

Election officials in Southeastern Pennsylvania had been pleading with legislators to delay the primary. The extra five weeks means they can stock up on supplies to run polling places safely, such as gloves, masks and hand sanitizer, currently in high demand and scarce.

It also gives lead time to get paper and envelopes to meet the demand for mail-in ballots or for the possibility of an all-mail election, said Philadelphia Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio.

Staff who were preparing for April 28 can return to “nonessential” status for a few weeks, staying home and practicing social distancing.

“It allows for a possibility that life could to return to normal,” Custodio said. “Our regular poll workers will feel comfortable working and we can reschedule their training. Polling places will open back up for business and will allow us in on Primary Day.”

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(Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this report.)

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