>>MORE: How the coronavirus has upended Georgia politics
>>MORE: Kemp declares public health emergency; 66 coronavirus cases in Ga.
The delay of the presidential primary was an extraordinary step for state election officials concerned that crowds could gather at polling places and spread the disease caused by coronavirus, which has sickened at least 66 Georgians and killed one.
Mounting concerns about how to safely hold the election as coronavirus spreads led to intense negotiations between Raffensperger’s office and Democratic Party officials over whether to hold the vote as scheduled.
“Our priority is to protect the health and safety of all Georgians and to ensure that as many Georgians as possible have an opportunity to vote,” said Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia. “Continued in-person voting could compromise both goals.”
Poll worker Jumaine Russell works on an advanced early voting form at Johns Creek polling station Saturday, March 14, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Health authorities have advised people to avoid large gatherings, and everything from national sporting events to school have already been canceled. Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency in the state earlier Saturday.
Besides Georgia's significant role in picking the Democratic Party nominee, the presidential primary was also the first statewide test of a new $104 million voting system, which adds paper ballots to elections for the first time since 2002.
Voters will pick their candidates on touchscreens and then can review printed-out paper ballots before depositing them into scanning machines. But continuing the March 24 vote as scheduled became increasingly untenable as the coronavirus spread.
Faced with public health dangers and the potential for depressed turnout, the secretary of state’s office decided to wait out the infection and give voters more time to vote by absentee by mail if they choose to do so.
In addition, Kemp and others have urged elderly people to steer clear of public gatherings to avoid the disease, and elections supervisors worried that poll sites would pose a risk to Georgia poll workers, who are on average 70 years old. About 300 have already said they would no longer be able to work.
Still, some candidates are worried that public health crisis will still be raging by late May, forcing more complications and another potential delay.
Carolyn Bourdeaux, a Democrat competing for a suburban U.S. House seat, called on state officials to administer the May 19 election by mail if the coronavirus outbreak grows worse.
“It’s pretty simple,” she said. “Voting shouldn’t put your health at risk.”
She was echoed by a half-dozen other candidates contacted by the AJC over the weekend, including Stacey Evans, a former gubernatorial contender now running for an Atlanta-based Georgia House seat.
“What Georgia really needs is a robust, easy-to-access vote-by-mail program,” said Evans. “Because, while we all hope that the situation with the coronavirus will have improved by May 19, or April 27 when early voting would begin, we really don't know for sure.”
Converting to mail-in voting would be a tremendous undertaking, requiring ballots sent to all of Georgia's 7.2 million voters and emergency changes to election regulations.
The state already allows any voter to mail in an absentee ballot instead of voting in person, a point that Republicans often highlight.
“Georgia already has great early voting opportunities that will not have large crowds as well as easy absentee ballot access,” said Mark Gonsalves, a GOP U.S. House candidate who called Bourdeaux’s proposal a “silly idea.”
Georgia typically holds its presidential primary in early March with other "Super Tuesday" states, but pushed the date this year to March 24 to give officials more time to install thousands of touchscreen voting machines that will be used for the first time.
The Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger talks to the media in front of old voting machines while waiting for the largest shipment of Georgia’s new secure paper-ballot voting machines at the Dekalb County Voter Registration & Elections offices in Avondale Estates on Monday December 30th, 2019. 2839 units are to be delivered for Dekalb County. (Photo by Phil Skinner).
Local officials, who have buzzed about the possibility for days, quickly applauded the decision to delay the presidential primary.
“It’s a responsible thing to do,” said Gwinnett County Democratic Party Chairwoman Bianca Keaton. “Right now, people are really concerned for their health and it’s an appropriate step to make sure we’re prepared.”
The delay means the May 19 primary election will now include votes for president, U.S. Senate and U.S. House, along with state and local offices.
That could help boost turnout for the nationally watched contest for U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s seat. Several prominent Democrats are competing to challenge the first-term Republican, including Sarah Riggs Amico, Jon Ossoff and Teresa Tomlinson.
No dry run
The decision to hold off on March election comes as officials in the four states holding presidential primaries this Tuesday – Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio — say they have no plans to postpone voting but announced precautions such as extending absentee voting deadlines and cotton swabs to use on touchscreen machines.
"They voted during the Civil War," said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. "We're going to vote."
Both Democratic presidential candidates were unlikely to visit Georgia before next week's vote, as the pandemic forced state party officials to scrap a fundraising gala that Biden was set to headline. Sanders' campaign also canceled the opening of an office in southwest Atlanta.
Though the suspense of the Democratic contest had all but evaporated after Biden's string of primary victories, Democratic officials were initially eager to continue with a vote they also saw as a dry run for the November election.
Still, voting rights activists applauded the move as a tough but necessary decision. The head of Fair Fight, the group Stacey Abrams launched to promote ballot access, said the delay will help stoke turnout and prove Georgia is a “pivotal battleground state.”
“Moving the presidential primary to May 19 will allow even more Georgians to participate,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the organization’s director, “and Fair Fight will be watching to ensure every vote is properly counted.”