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Delay or Hold Primaries: Can the 2020 Election Be Safeguarded Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic?

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Tuesday night’s primary election for the Democratic presidential nomination was marred by chaos, confusion and fears over the spread of coronavirus at polling places as former Vice President Joe Biden consolidated his lead as he won Florida and Illinois by a wide margin and scored a victory in Arizona. We are joined by Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the Obama administration, now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights coalition. They issued a call with 100 voting rights groups for states to proceed with elections while protecting public health. We are also joined by Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California and co-chair of Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to the results of Tuesday’s primaries for the Democratic presidential nomination, which were marred by chaos, confusion and fears over the spread of coronavirus at polling places. Former Vice President Joe Biden consolidated his lead as he won Florida and Illinois by a wide margin and scored a victory in Arizona. In Illinois, which recorded its first coronavirus death on Tuesday, more than 800 election judges — many of them elderly and highly at risk — refused to participate in Tuesday’s primary. At least 200 Chicago polling places were moved away from highly sensitive sites, including nursing homes and senior centers. At the Thurgood Marshall Public Library, scores of mostly African-American voters waited for up to two hours in a cramped lobby for their turn to cast a ballot. Ohio was also scheduled to vote Tuesday, but Republican Governor Mike DeWine delayed his state’s primary until June 2nd after declaring a public health emergency. He defied a federal judge. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez came under intense criticism for supporting in-person voting during the outbreak.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the Obama administration, now president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights coalition. They issued a call with 100 voting rights groups for states to proceed with elections while protecting public health. And we continue with Ro Khanna, the Democratic congressmember from California, co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Welcoming you both to Democracy Now! Vanita Gupta, can you lay out why you feel these elections should continue, these primaries, in the midst of this pandemic? When people are trying to figure out how to stay home, being told that you should go home, not go to work, to protect yourselves in the community, they’re also being told to go out to vote. Why do you think this is a good idea at this point?

VANITA GUPTA: So, the Leadership Conference actually has not this week kind of taken any position on whether in-person voting should go forward or not. I think the important thing is that every state and locality needs to make that decision for themselves based on conditions that exist in the state. And we understand that. What we are saying, very emphatically, is that states need to enact a series of election reforms and policies immediately in order to ensure that upcoming primaries, and certainly the November election, that states are actually prepared. We don’t know what the conditions are going to be, what the kind of look of the pandemic is going to be, over the summer. A lot of states have actually postponed their upcoming primaries into June. And the problem is there’s a lot of uncertainty.

And so, what we are saying is that states need to be better prepared to have things like vote by mail, absentee ballots, no-excuse absentee ballots, with the kind of security that we need. We are asking that if their states choose to have in-person voting, that they actually follow CDC election guidance that requires social distancing in lines, that requires disinfecting and hand sanitization, understanding the incredible challenges that the country is facing right now. The problem is, is we cannot undermine our democracy in the next several months, even as we are facing unprecedented public health challenges. And so we need states to enact these measures in order to allow democracy to go forward, while maintaining public health for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Ro Khanna, what is your position? Ro Khanna, your position, as you’re co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, presidential campaign, on whether these primaries should go forward as scheduled?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Amy, I was not able to hear Vanita Gupta. Let me just say I have tremendous respect and admiration for her. I actually think she should be one day a candidate for the Supreme Court. That said, you know, here we may respectfully disagree. I believe the right to vote is sacred, but I also think that there was such concern about people’s safety, such concern about exposing people to groups of exposure, and concern about whether people really would feel comfortable exercising their vote. I don’t see what the harm really would be to having had those elections delayed the way that the governor of Ohio, frankly, did. So, that would have been my recommendation, if I were advising any of the governors of these states.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would it mean, Ro Khanna, if the primaries are delayed for an indefinite period of time? I mean, the governor of New York, Governor Cuomo, said we’re talking about 45 days before this even peaks. So we’re going through the primary season. What would you suggest?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I think we have to consider the health and safety of people first. And there is no way that we should be exposing people to the risk of congregating in groups, if that’s going to mean more exposure to the coronavirus and if that means even one or two people are at the risk of death or serious illness. I mean, that’s just not something we do as a nation that values the dignity of life of every human being. So I would suggest that you could have vote by mail. I would suggest alternative means of participating and some delay as much as possible. These are difficult decisions, but I just think that the safety and life of our population has to be first.

VANITA GUPTA: Amy, if I could, because Congressman Khanna —

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Vanita Gupta.

VANITA GUPTA: — did not hear me, unfortunately. He and I actually quite agree with this, and that the safety and health of our communities has to come first. What the Leadership Conference and over 200 national civil and human rights groups have been saying, that are deep in the space on voting rights, is that we have to make sure that safety comes first, but that states are adequately prepared with the kind of measures of vote by mail, absentee ballot, making sure that we’ve got polling place adjustments for states that decide to go forward after assessing their own conditions. We need extended periods of early voting, so that people can actually have much more time to vote by mail than currently exists. There’s a series of measures that states need to enact, given this highly unusual, atypical set of circumstances around this pandemic, so that we can both protect voters’ public health while maintaining a democracy that is able to move forward.

It is long past time for states, red or blue, to enact these kinds of commonsense measures that would allow people to vote from the comfort of their homes securely and safely, because we need to be ready by November. There can be no postponement of the November general election. The good news right now is that states have many, many months to prepare and to get these measures in place. If they are not able to in advance of the primaries, that is one thing, although I think these postponements give states the time to do this. But certainly there can be no excuse for delaying a November election, given that states have the time. And Congress needs to fund it. In any COVID-19 package that goes forward moving now, we need to make sure that election reform and funding exists to fund these kinds of changes, so that we are absolutely ready come November.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, Vanita Gupta, about the group of 1,600 individuals, including more than 100 medical professionals, who wrote an open letter calling for the next round of presidential primaries to be postponed until May because of the coronavirus epidemic — pandemic. They write, “We have seen long lines of voters in states like Texas and Michigan. The amount of time standing in line with hundreds or even thousands of other voters substantially increases the likelihood someone will get sick.” So, we are not talking far into the future. They are talking about postponing the next round of presidential primaries, saying the very thing you’re proposing, they’re asking, “Can that be put in place?”

VANITA GUPTA: Yeah. I mean, look, we have to respect — we’ve got to, as we said, put the health and safety of voters first. We need to — that’s why states are making these decisions. Increasingly, more and more states are postponing their primaries. What we are saying at the Leadership Conference is that use the time of this postponement to get measures in place that would allow for secure, safe vote by mail, no-excuse absentee ballot measures and the like. A lot of states still don’t have those measures in place. They need to have a whole bunch of guardrails that would be associated with vote by mail, as well, put those in place now to be ready. That’s what we are saying.

The danger is — and you know this — that election reforms and voting rights work is often kind of put to the side and doesn’t have bipartisan support. This is a moment where the nation needs to come together, where Republican and Democratic secretaries of states, governors, senators and members of the House of Representatives in Congress need to come together and enact these reforms, that we have listed in great detail, and make sure that they are funded so that states can get to work and get these measures put in place to address the very kinds of concerns that are like really important and listed in this letter from public health experts.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you, Vanita Gupta, about the recent reports that the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is urging conservative judges to retire now while Republicans still control the White House and Senate, so that they can confirm their replacements. The New York Times writes, quote, “Senator Mitch McConnell, … who has used his position as majority leader to build a judicial confirmation juggernaut for President Trump over the past three years, has been personally reaching out to judges to sound them out on their plans and assure them that they would have a worthy successor if they gave up their seats soon, according to multiple people with knowledge of his actions,” telling them, as having senior status, they will continue to be paid, so that while the Republicans control the Senate, they can replace those judges. We just have 30 seconds. If you can talk about the significance of this move and, in the midst of this pandemic, what people should be paying attention to?

VANITA GUPTA: Look, we cannot lose sight of what’s happening to our federal courts. The federal courts impact every part of our life. And Senator McConnell has been single-minded about packing the courts with extreme judges, nominees who are rated not qualified by the ABA, totally undiverse. Two-thirds of the appellate judges that have been confirmed in the Trump administration are white men, many of them carrying very extreme views against gay marriage, trying to undermine voting protections and voting rights in this country. They’re very young. These people will serve in these positions for a lifetime.

And so, even as we are grappling with the enormous kind of democracy burdens that the pandemic is causing us, let’s not lose sight of what’s happening to our federal courts, which will have impact not only on our lives, but our children’s and our grandchildren’s lives. And this is why, when it comes to November, we need a pro-civil rights Senate. We need a pro-civil rights administration, that is going to do the right thing and ensure the enforcement of long-, hard-fought civil rights protections for all of our communities. But I don’t think any of us were surprised that Senator McConnell has been quietly, but now openly, doing this to further pack our courts. And he will continue to do it, until we stand up as a country and say that those hard-fought protections are worthy and most important of being protected moving forward by our federal courts.

AMY GOODMAN: Vanita Gupta, I want to thank you for being with us.

VANITA GUPTA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: President of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, she was head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice in the Obama administration. And also, great thanks to Congressmember Ro Khanna of California.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, millions of restaurant workers around the country are losing their jobs. What will happen to them? Stay with us.

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