With an ongoing pandemic and a redistricting commission just starting work, primaries are still scheduled for June.
RICHMOND – Right now, all of Virginia’s primaries are still scheduled to take place in June. But with a pandemic still going and redistricting work just starting, that’s not guaranteed. There’s also some other questions left to be answered. As they say in entertainment, the card is subject to change.
The Code of Virginia, §24.2-101, defines a primary as an election held for the purpose of selecting a candidate to be the nominee of a political party for election to office. Virginia’s Democrats already agreed to hold primaries for all their statewide nominees. Republicans, however, seem to be going back and forth. Currently, they plan to hold a convention to pick their nominees.
That means only Democrats will go to the polls in June. If Republicans stick with an unassembled convention, it’s done a bit differently. In a regular convention, delegates gather in one location. In an unassembled version, regional polling places are set up across the state. However, just like in the regular version, only certified delegates can vote. These delegates are selected by each local party and then have to pay convention dues, typically $35, in order to vote.
Andrea Gaines, Virginia Department of Elections director of community relations and compliance support, noted that nothing’s official until the parties notify the state.
“We will not know how many primaries there will be until the parties notify the Department that they have selected a primary and until candidates have filed,” Gaines said. “If only one candidate files for a primary, they are declared the winner and the primary is cancelled.”
Hosting a Proper Primary
Now there is a bit of a ticking clock, for multiple reasons. For a valid primary election, there is a set of rules each candidate and locality must follow.
The Code of Virginia, §24.2-516, states that each party must furnish the names of its chairmen and notify the State Board of the adoption of the direct primary.
The information they provide includes the names and addresses of its state, county and city party chairmen in January of each year. If one of those people change their name or move, they simply notify the State Board of the alteration.
At least 135 days prior to the regular date for a primary – that’s about four and a half months – the Board asks each state, county and city chairman whether or not they adopted a direct primary. They have no more than 125 days and no less than 105 days before the primary to file with the Board.
Democrats have already made that decision. If Republicans decide to switch to a primary, they have just under a month to do it.
In that time frame, each chairman gives the Board a written notice, stating whether or not they need a primary election in their locale. In the document, they identify each office holding a primary election.
If the Board receives the notice by the deadline and determines that it came from the proper source, the primary election gets a green light.
Now as we mentioned, it’s not guaranteed all primaries will take place in June. The statewide ones will, but those involving districts could get moved back. Why? Because of redistricting. Voting districts, such as those for state and national offices, are redrawn after every census. In November, Virginia voters passed a constitutional amendment, creating a redistricting commission to handle the work. Eight citizens and eight lawmakers are assigned to draw new districts to match the 2020 Census data. But there’s just one problem. The census data hasn’t been released.
Under current law, census data has to be delivered to the states no later than April 1. But over the last 10 months, everything from the pandemic to presidential orders pushed back final results. At this point, census officials believe they might be able to get the final data out by May, but even that’s questionable.
That’s where the question comes in. If nothing changes between now and May, then all primaries will be held as scheduled in June. But if the data comes in over the next four months, those district primaries could be moved.
“At this time, primaries are still scheduled for June,” Gaines said. “Until there is a change, the Department of Elections and local general registrars are planning for primaries in June.”
There is a Precedent
If a primary occurred after late spring, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. During the 2011 General Assembly session, lawmakers voted to move that year’s June 14 primaries to August 23. However, the primary date cannot change overnight. And the decision isn’t one-sided.
“Parties cannot schedule the date of state-run primaries. If the General Assembly chooses to change the date of the primaries, the Department of Elections will provide information on what challenges would need to be considered for any change in date,” Gaines said.
But as Virginia polling places ready themselves for another voting event during the COVID-19 pandemic, they aren’t acting alone.
The Department of Elections created and distributed a two-page document filled with COVID-19 safety guidelines in Sept. 2020.
The information within the pages included guidance on wearing masks and social distancing in voting facilities.
The document also covered what to do in the event that a voter would not wear a mask. Options included offering a mask or curbside voting, but expressed that election officials could not deny a vote because the individual lacked a mask. The pages offered the same guidance for those refusing temperature checks, running a fever or exhibiting symptoms of illness.
“The Department of Elections and general registrars’ offices across the Commonwealth have been successful at working to ensure the safety of their staff and voters. Last year, the Department issued safety guidance that would still be relevant for future elections,” Gaines said. “For specific procedures, we recommend contacting localities directly.”
Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]