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D.C. to cut back in-person primary voting, encourage mail-in ballots amid coronavirus outbreak

As the United States grapples with the novel coronavirus pandemic, the nation’s capital plans to pare down in-person voting and encourage mail-in voting for the District of Columbia’s June 2 primary elections.

The move comes as at least a dozen states have postponed their primaries in an effort to protect voters from contracting the virus and as candidates across the country have replaced physical campaigning with virtual efforts. More than 1,100 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and more than 82,000 people across the country have been infected, according to the COVID Tracking Project, which draws data from state and local government and health authorities across the country. There have been more than 230 cases and at least three deaths in D.C. from COVID-19.

“We have three things we need Washingtonians to do: stay home, complete your 2020 Census, and request your mail-in ballot,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a statement to the PBS NewsHour. “The D.C. Board of Elections is working quickly to put systems in place to keep in-person voting, mail-in balloting and democracy safe.”

READ MORE: How postponing primaries for COVID-19 could complicate the 2020 race

The city will go from 144 precincts for in-person voting on primary day to just 20. There will be 11 days of early voting, beginning May 22 through the June 2 primary. The city also hopes to expand the number of early voting centers during this time, from 15 to 20 sites.

District officials said the D.C. Board of Elections will coordinate with federal and local health officials to minimize the risk of infection for voters and election workers. They added that the board is fully equipped to process the mail-in ballots. Residents of the district can request a ballot online, by calling or faxing the city as well as through the board’s mobile application.

Michael Bennett, chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections, told the NewsHour in a statement that the changes are about protecting the public and election workers and that mail-in ballots are “safe, secure and simple.”

Map: Watch the real-time spread of coronavirus in the U.S.

“The Board of Elections is committed to providing a safe environment where every vote is counted,” Bennett said in the statement. “We are urging all District voters to safely request their ballot today.”

The move aligns with guidance given by Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez last week. In a statement, he said states should not delay primaries, but instead find ways to conduct them safely — begin mailing ballots to all registered voters, implement “no-excuse absentee voting” allowing ballots to be dropped off at pre-approved sites, and expand their hours and days for voting to reduce crowding and long lines.

District officials plan to announce the changes and provide details at a news conference Friday.

The changes come after Bowser complained that D.C., where many federal workers live and work, was not given fair treatment in the $2 trillion coronavirus spending bill that the House is expected to pass Friday. The president is expected to sign the legislation shortly after.

At a news conference Thursday, Bowser said while the 50 states received at least $1.25 billion each, D.C. was treated like a U.S. territory and given $500 million. She called the allocation “wrong” and “infuriating.”

“It’s unconscionable to give D.C. the least amount of funding of any state, especially given the unique challenges we take on as the seat of the federal government,” Bowser said. “We’re not a territory. We pay more taxes — unlike the territories — than 22 states. We have a larger population than several states and we are treated as a state by thousands of federal laws and programs.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also criticized the move Thursday. “It was curious that in this bill they decided to treat the District of Columbia in a very discriminatory way,” she told reporters at a news briefing. “It really makes no sense unless you have some other motivation.”