Kansas Democrats have scrapped plans for polling sites for their May 2 presidential primary and are using only mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic.
State Chairwoman Vicki Hiatt said Monday that polling sites are “going to be too risky” and that some were at public schools and community colleges that have closed. The party on Monday began mailing ballots to almost 390,000 people registered as Democrats as of early March. The figure could top 400,000.
Hiatt’s announcement came as Gov. Andrew Cuomo in hard-hit New York said he was delaying that state’s presidential primary from April 28 to June 23. Presidential primaries also have been postponed in Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Rhode Island.
“Thank goodness we already had the mail-in piece,” Hiatt said. “We always have to look for the right way to do things and protect voters’ rights to have elections and make sure democracy is protected.”
Hiatt said she’s hoping that scrapping polling sites won’t hurt turnout but believes participation will be driven more by whether Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders continues to challenge former Vice President Joe Biden.
In Kansas, the parties run their presidential contests, with caucuses the norm except when a Republican president is seeking re-election. The Kansas GOP is having state and congressional district conventions of party activists pick convention delegates, all supporting President Donald Trump.
State health officials expect the coronavirus outbreak in Kansas to peak on or near April 24, eight days before the Democratic presidential primary. Dr. Lee Norman, the state’s health secretary, said it’s still unwise to have public gatherings close to the peak.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Kansas has more than tripled in six days, to 368 cases reported by the state health department. Nine COVID-19-related deaths have been reported by state and local health officials.
Confirmed cases have spread from the state’s portion of the Kansas City area to 37 of its 105 counties. While most infected people recover and many have mild or moderate symptoms, the virus can cause serious illnesses or death, particularly in older adults or people with underlying health issues.
Chris Reeves, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Kansas, said conducting a purely mail-ballot election was “our only choice.” He said the Trump administration should support using mail ballots through the fall and provide financial support to states.
Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, has said there is no plan to delay the state’s Aug. 4 primary, but his office is encouraging voters to ask for mail ballots in advance. Spokeswoman Katie Koupal said state law doesn’t require a voter to have a reason to request a mail ballot.
Koupal said that scrapping polling places will lessen the risk of spreading coronavirus, though it still could be present in a mail-ballot election, such as when voters lick ballot envelopes to seal them.
Hiatt said she’s hoping that if the Democratic presidential primary goes smoothly, it will encourage state officials to move exclusively to mail ballots for all state elections. Supporters of the idea expect it would boost turnout.
“It’s just time,” former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview. “Mail ballots, particularly with some early voting that we have in Kansas, just make it so much easier to participate.”