Twenty states and American Samoa have gone to the polls so far this month, with five states remaining in March. Former Vice President Joe Biden expanded his lead in pledged delegates after winning Michigan, Mississippi, Idaho, and Missouri in Tuesday’s primaries, while Sen. Bernie Sanders won in North Dakota. Ballots are still being counted in Washington, but Biden is narrowly in the lead.
In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Sanders pledged to continue moving forward with his campaign, saying exit polls show that “a strong majority of the American people support our progressive agenda.” Sanders suggested that while his campaign was seemingly winning the “ideological debate,” they were “losing the debate over electability.”
Voters in Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands will cast their ballots between Mar. 14 and Mar. 31, leaving approximately 740 pledged delegates still up for grabs this month. Looking ahead across the rest of this primary cycle, it’s important to reflect on the lessons from attempted voter engagement and prior races. Oftentimes, campaigns, candidates, and supporters are so focused on the rat race that is the primary that there is little time for reflection and adjustment. As the candidates and their respective camps continue to forge ahead across the remaining primary states, there are some key takeaways from the races earlier this month that give grassroots organizers and voters some food for thought.
Here are four considerations as folks move forward across this primary cycle and beyond.
The race isn’t over yet—more states are remaining and voters should have their say
Super Tuesday drastically changed the nature of the race. Several candidates coalesced behind Biden, marking a sharp departure from the prior few weeks. While Biden is in the lead, folks should not forget how quickly things have shifted this cycle. Given the changing nature of the race, calls for an end to the primary are both premature and undemocratic. In other words, there should be no cancellation of the Democratic primary simply because one candidate is further ahead in polling—at least he is for now. Besides the fact that a candidate needs 1,991 pledged delegates to become the Democratic nominee, neither candidate has even half the required delegates.
In addition to the over 700 pledged delegates still in play in March, there are 854 pledged delegates up for grabs in April, 300 in May, and 222 in June. The process should not be abdicated. Both campaigns, along with the Democratic Party, need to continue engaging voters. Process matters and should not simply be suspended for the sake of convenience. Even if we reach a point where one candidate has an insurmountable delegate lead, there is more at stake than crowning someone the winner. The opportunity for all voters to shape the party’s platform and have a seat at the table in determining rules and procedures for future contests is an important consideration.
Treating the nomination as a foregone conclusion could negatively impact the turnout of voters who may otherwise stay home if they feel their votes don’t matter. With precautions being taken due to the spread of coronavirus, voters do not need another reason to deter them from heading to the polls.
Calling voters “low-information” is dismissive
There has been a trend in calling voters, particularly Black voters who have supported Biden, “low-information” to rationalize why they have not supported Sanders in larger numbers. Last week, Sanders’ surrogate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped in it by commenting on the Black support enjoyed by Biden, echoing the sentiment that those voters are low information. He later tried to walk back his comments, but such dismissal of voters’ decision-making ignores why and how people are moving in this primary cycle. It is on candidates and their campaigns to win over voters and make the case for their positions. How that plays out depends on the commitment and investment in voters and communities across the country. Base building and expanding the electorate requires a deep commitment to a reflective democracy, treating people as if they are valued partners in the process, and not simply treating voters as targets on call sheets. Shifting people’s behavior and the calculus of how they decide to vote cannot happen with name calling and condescension.
State emergency voting measures make a good case for vote by mail
The World Health Organization has declared a pandemic of the coronavirus and schools and government buildings are closing all over the country due to the outbreak. With another round of primaries just days away, coronavirus concerns could affect turnout. In Ohio, 128 polling locations have been moved from nursing homes and election officials are having a difficult time finding poll workers. Illinois election officials are attempting to adjust to the new normal, but are planning to continue with the planned voting process as scheduled. The vote by mail deadline was extended to Thursday at midnight. Relocating polling sites can cause unnecessary confusion, lead people to show up at the wrong location, or cause them not to be able to vote at all.
In total, 33 states allow for “excuse free” absentee ballots or voting by mail, but this process is still relatively unknown to many voters. In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Ho, the director of the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU, laid out steps to minimize disenfranchisement by expanding access to vote by mail and protecting the rights of absentee voters. Ho explained that absentee ballots have a high rate of rejection compared to those cast on election day in person.
Voting issues need to be addressed year-round, not just at election time
Super Tuesday highlighted several election issues and voting problems in California and Texas. In Los Angeles County, long wait times and malfunctioning equipment raise concerns ahead of the November elections. In addition to long lines across Texas, Dallas County election staff discovered votes from 44 tabulating machines had not been counted. Officials petitioned the courts for a recount after discovering 9,149 ballots that had previously been missed. North Texas organizer Kristian Hernandez raised concerns about the potential effect of this error on people’s perception of the integrity of the electoral process.
“Though a recount was issued, and the results only slightly shifted, this calls in question the very integrity and capacity of our elections department in allowing all working class people the right to vote quickly, fairly, and most importantly, that their vote [is] counted,” she said.
A national political committee member of Democratic Socialists of America, Hernandez wondered what would have happened had turnout been higher. “It’s hard to imagine the chaos had turnout been higher or what turnout could have been if polling locations weren’t continuously being closed over the last two years in the communities that deal with disenfranchisement the most.”
In Missouri, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas was initially turned away from his polling location of 11 years because his name was allegedly not on the roll of registered voters. Although he was offered a provisional ballot, Lucas was adamant about having the mistake corrected so that he could cast a regular ballot. He presented various forms of ID, but was only able to cast a regular ballot when he returned with his passport later in the day. Elsewhere in the state, election staff at some polling locations reported problems with the electronic poll books being used to check in voters—For the first hour, the poll books could not sync to the system.
While these may seem like innocuous issues to some, human error upon check-in, misplaced registrations, long lines, and failures to tabulate all votes cast in an election are pressing issues that require attention and prevention before Election Day. Primaries aren’t just about candidates getting the requisite number of delegates—they are also an opportunity for them to put forth the best ideas they have to offer and adjust their campaigns in response to how the races unfold. It remains to be seen whether the two remaining Democratic candidates will heed the lessons from the March primaries so far.