The results of Wyoming’s Democratic primary surprised almost no one, but the state’s ability to hold a decisive election in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic impressed observers across the country.
Former Vice President Joe Biden won by a landslide, Wyoming Democrats announced Monday after holding the contest with mail-in ballots only. Election officials in other states took note, especially after Wisconsin’s election earlier in the month caused a national controversy. Partisan wrangling in the Badger State resulted in an in-person election that was temporarily postponed, then reinstated the day before, and now is suspected of contributing to the spread of COVID-19.
“We fully believe our experience with this is kind of a standard-setter for Wyoming,” said Nina Hebert, communications director for the Wyoming Democratic Party.
Democrats initially planned to hold caucuses in the state on April 4. Participants would have been able to vote in person or mail or drop off their ballots. Due to the pandemic, party officials moved it to last Friday after having mailed ballots to every Wyoming Democrat who had registered by March 20. After a day of sorting and overnight verification, the Associated Press and other media outlets called the race for Biden on Sunday.
So far, every state with a planned March or April primary has postponed it, expanded mail-in voting options, or extended the timeframe for returning absentee ballots. Some opted for a combination of all three—except Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, lost a last-ditch effort on April 6 to delay his state’s election until June. The following day, about 400,000 people, many clad in face masks, headed to the polls. At least 19 people who worked at voting sites or voted in person have tested positive for the coronavirus, the state’s health department announced this week.
“Both parties are trying to avoid being the next Wisconsin,” Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, said.
Thirty-three states allow no-excuse absentee voting. Five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—hold mail-in elections for all. While many Democrats are pushing for following Wyoming’s example and moving to a vote-by-mail system, not all states are prepared to do so. Hebert said Wyoming had an easier time making the switch because Democrats already had planned to have hybrid caucuses that included mail-in ballots. She said turnout was about 38 percent.
Some states—and voters—resist upending established election systems to adopt something new. Last-minute changes to procedures risk confusing voters and depressing turnout. States that have low rates of absentee voting may face additional challenges.
About 98 percent of voters in Kentucky typically cast their ballots in person, Adams said. The state’s election officials delayed its primary, originally scheduled for May 19, to June 23. They are considering a range of options such as extending early voting and allowing people to vote in person over more days. Adams said his office also will encourage more people to request absentee ballots.
Like Wisconsin, Kentucky has a Democratic governor with a Republican-controlled legislature. Adams said they’re starting talks early to avoid partisan brinkmanship.
Wyoming’s secretary of state did not respond to an inquiry about how the state planned to hold other upcoming elections, including a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in August.
“Elections are a hallmark, a bedrock of American democracy, and these are not things that really should be delayed and should be held in a timely manner, and in the safest manner possible,” Hebert said.