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NY's April presidential primary should be postponed

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to supporters

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to supporters during a rally on March 2, 2020 at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, and Democratic White House hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at the Convention Center in Los Angeles, California on March 1, 2020 in this combination of file pictures. Credit: AFP /AFP via Getty Images/MARK FELIX

The coming weeks are going to be an all-out battle to get the coronavirus under control and save lives in New York. Holding the state's April 28 presidential primary would be a dangerous distraction. It should be postponed.

COVID-19 is just the latest threat to our elections. Last week's federal stimulus bill includes $400 million for states to ensure the virus doesn't upend November's election. That concern comes atop the fear of more cyberattacks in poorly secured state systems that were discovered in the wake of 2016 Russian meddling. Pennsylvania and Alaska are moving their presidential primaries for health reasons.

In the meantime, New York must make the smart choice for April. Some 2 million people voted statewide in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary (there is no Republican primary in New York this cycle). Those kinds of numbers should not be gathering in the state’s schools and public places, so soon.

That doesn't mean cancellation. The two remaining candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, have enough Empire State support to clear the 15 percent threshold to earn delegates. They're viable candidates, even if Biden is the frontrunner. Unless that changes, the vote has to happen. 

Moving the vote to June 23, when state and federal primaries are already scheduled, is the safe and cost-effective choice. The change can be made either by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or the State Legislature, according to the Board of Elections. Legislative action is best, to show agreement among a wide swathe of elected representatives instead of setting a precedent of allowing the executive to make such declarations.

A June 23 primary wouldn't leave much time before the state party would confirm the slate of delegates to the July Democratic convention, itself in flux, but safety in this time of fear is the better course. 

And an April vote may not even be feasible. Preparations for the primary are being thrown into disarray because of the crisis. The organization that represents New York elections personnel called last week for a postponement, noting that local elections boards should be gearing up already. They will “find it almost impossible to meet mission critical deadlines for testing machines and preparing ballots because of staff shortages due to the ongoing stay-at-home order,” the group explained.

Legislative proposals to help expand the use of absentee ballots so more people can vote from home are smart now — and in general. But that may not be enough for the COVID-19 threat. Even a June primary will require serious public health preparations, which we must start now. A recent Brennan Center for Justice report smartly suggested hand sanitizer for polling places and disposable pens to mark paper ballots — for the general election in November, half a year away.

Supporters of the remaining Democratic candidates deserve to have their preferences registered. They also must be able to fulfill their civic duty safely. In April, that can’t be ensured.

— The editorial board