It’s hard to remember amid the onslaught of terrifying coronavirus updates, but there’s a crucial national election going on. And while Joe Biden appears to have locked up the Democratic nomination for president, and Donald Trump will be the GOP’s nominee, the primaries are still ongoing and hurtling toward both parties’ conventions this summer. But how do you hold a convention with tens of thousands of your party’s most faithful supporters and delegates while maintaining social distance?
Neither party has cancelled its convention yet—the Democrats plan to hold their convention in Milwaukee in July, while the Republicans plan to hold theirs in August in Charlotte, North Carolina—but the possibility isn’t exactly far-fetched. The nomination process has already been seriously disrupted by coronavirus. In Wisconsin, governor Tony Evers has declared a health emergency, and Milwaukee county has put in place a ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people. That county now has 95 confirmed cases as of Friday, with the number rising steadily. North Carolina governor Roy Cooper has closed schools and ordered all restaurants to close dining rooms, but so far has not declared an emergency or a stay at home order. Mecklenburg county, where Charlotte is located, already has 43 confirmed coronavirus cases—more than any other North Carolina county—and the number is rising. The state has referred residences to the federal government advisory to avoid gatherings of 10 or more.
And seven states–Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, and Ohio–have postponed their presidential primary election or caucuses.
Both Democrats and Republicans have so far been tight-lipped about the possibility that their conventions could be derailed by the epidemic. Though there’s a very real chance that the crisis could stretch into the summer months, neither party has announced any formal contingency plans, like postponements or virtual events, should the current convention dates become impossible.
Elaine Kamarck, a member of the DNC’s rules and bylaws committee from Massachusetts, told me party officials have not discussed the matter publicly, but that there is much discussion of it in private. “People are saying ‘Oh shit’,” Kamarck said, to illustrate the tenor of those conversations.
Kamarck, who is a presidential scholar and Brookings Institute fellow, said that holding some sort of virtual convention may be a possibility. Delegates, she said, might be asked to cast their votes for the presidential nominee using some kind of electronic platform. She said that wouldn’t likely be much of a security risk because a hacker wouldn’t likely try to intercept or manipulate the votes. “We’d know right away if something like that had happened because we already have a pretty good idea of the way the delegates will vote,” Kamarck told me.
GOP pollster Chris Wilson told me Republicans are more or less in “wait and see” mode right now. “Those conversations aren’t going on right now; it’s too early,” he said. Wilson ran the data science and digital operation behind Ted Cruz’s 2016 run for president. “I think people are just waiting to see if this thing blows over in the next few weeks.”
Neither the DNC or the RNC responded to requests for comment for this story.
The one bit of good news is that it’s looking like both the Republican and Democratic nominees will be decided by convention time. If a nomination were contested, Kamarck said, the party might have a very difficult time doing the political work of settling on a nominee.
For now, the parties have an even more pressing problem on their hands. After the primaries, one of the first things counties and congressional districts have to do is select the delegates they intend to send to the convention. The primaries decide how many delegate votes will go to the candidates, but the party still needs to pick the people who will carry that vote to the convention.
The selection process, traditionally, takes place during county and congressional district caucus meetings in which a lot of people get together under one roof. People huddle, they argue, they jostle, they shake hands. If anyone in the room was a carrier, chances are very high they would pass it on to others. Iowa was set to be the first state to begin the process of selecting delegates. The county caucuses were scheduled for March 21, but have now been postponed to a later date because of the virus. Democrats in Massachusetts has also decided to postpone county caucuses. More states will surely follow suit.
If the postponement dates don’t end up working out, the parties may be forced to gather the delegate nominations and vote via mail-in ballot or via some electronic reporting method. Remember that the Iowa and Nevada Democratic parties had originally planned on allowing caucus participants to phone in their votes, but the DNC reacted strongly against the plans and they were soon dropped.
It’s certainly too early for the GOP and DNC to panic over the coronavirus’s threat to the conventions. Nobody really knows how aggressively the virus will move among the U.S. population, and for how long. But they may be forced to quickly devise and formalize some contingency plans for a worst-case scenario.