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Postponing Federal Elections and the COVID-

19 Pandemic: Legal Considerations



March 20, 2020

On March 13, 2020, Louisiana's Governor invoked emergency powers to announce that the state's
presidential primary election, previously scheduled for April 4, would be postponed for more than two
months as part of the state's response to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID- 19) pandemic. Other
states soon began exploring similar changes, prompting election officials, candidates, and voters to
prepare for disruptions that could persist through November's general election.
This Sidebar reviews the legal provisions that would constrain any efforts to delay or cancel federal
elections during a public health crisis or other national emergency. The first part reviews laws pertaining
to presidential elections, and the second part reviews laws relevant to congressional elections.


Presidential Elections

Presidential selection and succession is best understood as a three-step process, consisting of (1) the
nomination of candidates by political parties; (2) the appointment of electors; and (3) balloting by electors
(and, if necessary, the House of Representatives). Each step in this process is governed by a different
constellation of state, federal, and constitutional rules, which allocate-or foreclose-discretion to alter
the schedule to different actors.

Presidential Primaries
The Constitution makes no mention of the primary elections that the major parties have adopted in most
states to select delegates to the national conventions where presidential candidates are formally
nominated. Accordingly, it is largely the states' prerogative, in coordination with the political parties, to
set the schedule and method of these contests. Some states schedule presidential primaries according to
parochial interests. New Hampshire law, for example, requires that state's presidential primary to be held
at least seven days in advance of any other state's primary to preserve its first-in-the-nation status. Other
states defer to the parties. In South Carolina, state law provides that a political party may set the date and
hours that polls will be open for a presidential preference primary election by providing written notice to
the State Election Commission at least 90 days before the preferred date. In other states, a party may
choose to forgo holding primary elections altogether.
                                                               Congressional Research Service
                                                                 https://crsreports.congress.gov
                                                                                   LSB10425

CRS Leg  Sidebar
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