Could the 2020 Election Be Postponed? Only With Great Difficulty. Here’s Why.
With Louisiana and Georgia delaying their primary votes, we answer six key questions about holding elections in a crisis. And no, a president cannot cancel an election with executive authority.
The November general election date is set by federal law, and to change it would mean legislation enacted by Congress, signed by the president and subject to challenge in the courts.
The November general election date is set by federal law, and to change it would mean legislation enacted by Congress, signed by the president and subject to challenge in the courts.Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times
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By Alexander Burns
March 14, 2020
The coronavirus outbreak is inflicting new disruptions on the 2020 presidential campaign by the day, but few compare to the decisions by Louisiana and Georgia over the past 48 hours to reschedule their upcoming primary elections.
The postponements were a highly unusual development in an American political campaign, though not an entirely unprecedented one.
So how much disruption can voters expect in the coming months? And how freely can local, state and federal authorities switch up the timing and other details of elections? We took a crack at answering some of the questions that may be on your mind.
Why are Louisiana and Georgia moving their primary elections?
Louisiana’s secretary of state, R. Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, asked Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, to postpone the state’s April 4 primary by about two months because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
The two men are permitted to do so by a Louisiana law that allows the governor to reschedule an election because of an emergency, so long as the secretary of state has certified that an emergency exists.
Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, announced Saturday that he was postponing the March 24 primary until May, and the Democratic Party of Georgia said it had endorsed the decision.
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Have other states changed their primaries in response to the coronavirus?
No. Or at least, not yet.
The four states with elections coming up on Tuesday — Florida, Ohio, Arizona and Illinois — have taken other precautions to make voting safer without shifting the date of their primaries. It is possible, however, that some later-voting states could follow the example of Louisiana and Georgia.
While such last-minute changes are highly unusual, states have broad autonomy to define the timing and procedures for primary elections. The exact process for setting primary dates varies from state to state. That is why a number of states changed the dates of their primaries and caucuses between 2016 and 2020, and why Republicans in several states were able to cancel their 2020 primary elections to minimize intraparty competition for President Trump.
But the Democratic Party also has its own rules requiring that all primary elections be completed by June 9, and that all delegates to its national convention in Milwaukee be selected by June 20. Any states that defy that timetable — including Louisiana — could be penalized by the national party with a reduction in their delegate count.
Could the general election be postponed or canceled?
Only with enormous difficulty.
The date of the general election is set by federal law and has been fixed since 1845. It would take a change in federal law to move that date. That would mean legislation enacted by Congress, signed by the president and subject to challenge in the courts.
To call that unlikely would be an understatement.
And even if all of that happened, there would not be much flexibility in choosing an alternate election date: The Constitution mandates that the new Congress must be sworn in on Jan. 3, and that the new president’s term must begin on Jan. 20. Those dates cannot be changed just by the passage of normal legislation.
After Louisiana’s announcement on Friday, Marc Elias, the prominent Democratic election lawyer, knocked down what he described as a wave of queries about whether the November election could be similarly revised.
“I am getting a lot of questions about the November election,” Mr. Elias wrote on Twitter. “While states can set their own primary days, the federal general election is set by federal statute as the the [sic] Tuesday following the first Monday in November. This date cannot be changed by a state nor by the President.”