ATLANTA — Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Thursday postponed the state’s primary election for three weeks, until June 9, as the coronavirus spreads, poll workers quit and voters worry about getting sick at precincts.
The election must be rescheduled because of the health risk if early voting had begun later this month for the primary, previously scheduled for May 19, Raffensperger said.
Raffensperger said he lacked the power to delay the election until Gov. Brian Kemp extended Georgia’s public health state of emergency Wednesday.
“This decision allows our office and county election officials to continue to put in place contingency plans to ensure that voting can be safe,” Raffensperger said. “I certainly realize that every difficulty will not be completely solved by the time in-person voting begins for the June 9 election, but elections must happen in less than ideal circumstances.”
Georgia is one of 16 states that has either delayed its presidential primaries or switched to voting by mail with extended deadlines.
The Georgia presidential primary had already been pushed back once from its original date of March 24.
A second election delay is an unprecedented step to prevent voters from gathering at polling places when they’re supposed to be avoiding human contact.
Changing the election date could help avoid the possibility that illness could spread at precincts, a prospect feared in Wisconsin after voters went to the polls Tuesday.
The number of COVID-19 patients and deaths in Georgia is projected to peak around April 21, a few days before in-person early voting would have started April 27, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Even though many people will vote by mail, in-person voting locations must remain open, according to state law. Raffensperger mailed Georgia’s 6.9 million active voters absentee ballot request forms, encouraging them to vote but stay home.
Pressure to move Georgia’s primary had mounted from all the state’s 11 Republican members of Congress, who last week urged Raffensperger, also a Republican, to take action so that voters won’t have to choose between their health and casting a ballot.
House Speaker David Ralston repeatedly called on Raffensperger to delay the primary.
“We have seen many reports recently about how impactful a May 19 primary will be on the ability of poll workers to report. Paramount is the health of voters, poll workers and others who must be at polling precincts on Election Day,” Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, wrote in a letter to Raffensperger on Wednesday.
Election officials across Georgia were scrambling to find enough people willing to work in voting precincts. Poll workers, whose average age is over 70, have been dropping out because they’re at higher risk during the coronavirus pandemic.
In southwest Georgia, an area hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, county election officials “could not overcome the challenges brought on by COVID-19 in time for in-person voting to begin,” according to the secretary of state’s office.
Besides the loss of election staff, voting precincts were closing.
Churches and assisted living centers that usually serve as voting locations have told election officials they’re unwilling to serve as polling places.
The new June 9 election date will give county election managers more time to recruit and train workers, as well as buy supplies to clean equipment and protect poll workers, Raffensperger said. In-person early voting will start May 18.
The primary date was moved to June 9 because that’s the latest it can be scheduled without missing deadlines for other elections this year leading up to the Nov. 3 general election, Raffensperger said.
Primary runoffs are scheduled for Aug. 11, and overseas and military ballots for the general election must be mailed mid-September.
Raffensperger had resisted delaying the presidential primary again, previously saying he didn’t have the authority under Georgia law to do so. He had called on the General Assembly or Kemp to take action.
Under Georgia law, a secretary of state can delay an election for up to 45 days if the governor declares a state of emergency. Kemp’s latest emergency order lasts until May 13.
Voters can return their absentee ballot request forms to receive a Democratic, Republican or nonpartisan ballot for the June 9 election. Request forms can also be downloaded from the secretary of state’s website.
The absentee request forms that were mailed to voters list the old May 19 date, but they’ll be valid for the new June 9 election date. After voters return their request forms, they will be mailed absentee ballots starting later this month, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Voters will choose candidates for president, Congress, the General Assembly, county commission, sheriff and other offices.
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)