Primary Day a Mixed Bag in the Three States Holding Contests

March 17, 2020 by Dan McCue
Virus Outbreak US Primaries

The first presidential primary day held against the backdrop of self-quarantines and widespread shortages of toilet paper and hand sanitizer was a mixed bag for the three states that opted to go ahead with the vote despite concerns over the global pandemic.

Officials in Ohio pulled the plug on their primary Monday night after federal officials urged Americans not to gather in groups of 10 or more and asked older people to stay at home.

But election officials in Arizona, Florida and Illinois chose to press on, soon finding that they were scrambling for more than Purell as literally thousands of poll workers decided to sit out Tuesday’s contests.

The situation was particularly dire in Chicago, Illinois, where Marisal Hernandez, a board of elections commissioner, issued an urgent request for voters who had the time to volunteer.

“If you’re healthy and capable and find your precinct understaffed and overburdened, you are welcome and encouraged to be sworn in on the spot as a substitute judge,” she said.

But the challenges didn’t stop there. Even when a voter stepped up and offered to help, elections officials still had to give them a crash course in hand washing and how to practice “social distancing at the polls.”

Similar scenes were said to have played out repeatedly in Chicago’s suburbs.

One reason: Only hours earlier Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker had ordered public gatherings be limited to 50 people and advised all to keep six feet away from others.

Similar issues emerged early in Florida, where Secretary of State Laurel Lee said there had been sporadic problems caused by poll workers not showing up.

“Fortunately, local supervisors of elections maintain extensive lists of poll workers and alternative poll workers,” she said.

Lee said the state was following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and noted that more than 1.9 million Floridians had already voted by mail or in early voting, reducing problems on Tuesday.

“In addition, it being a primary election, we’re not expecting large crowds at the polls,” she said.

However, Lee went on to note that there had been some isolated problems Tuesday morning.

“We are aware that one location opened late in Broward County today and that some issues arose at isolated precincts in Palm Beach County,” Lee said. “we’re working closely with supervisors in those areas to ensure that voters in those locations have the opportunity to vote.”

Robert Rodriguez, assistant deputy supervisor of elections in Miami-Dade County, told The Well News Tuesday that as of Monday night, over 159,000 voters in the jurisdiction had cast ballots, including 49,302 that took advantage of early voting and 109,727 who voted by mail.

As of 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, only 17,000 voters had shown up in person to cast their ballots.

Rodriguez said when they did, they were provided with hand sanitizer as they checked in, and had access to soap and water in all bathrooms at their polling place.

“In addition, disposable gloves, disinfectant spray and wipes were available to all staff,” he said.

Later, Rodriguez said about 4,800 poll workers had been expected to work election day, and that of those, 4,400 were working at the polls Tuesday.

“Given the light election turnout, we are confident we are properly staffed to receive voters,” he said.

But Lee appeared to bristle after a reporter asked her why she didn’t follow the governor’s lead and simply postpone the primary.

On the advice of the CDC and others, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday had ordered the closure of bars and restaurants and other places where large numbers of people gather.

“Precinct-based voting is unlike the types of gatherings that we have been advised to avoid in Florida,” she said. “We believe that statutes we follow in elections are consistent with the types of precautions we’ve been advised to take.”

Things also seemed to be going well in Arizona on Tuesday.

Sophia Solis, spokeswoman for the Arizona Secretary of State’s office, said in the run-up to Tuesday, state officials had been in almost constant communication with their counterparts of the county level, assuring them that CDC protocols for election sites would be followed.

“Election Day voting sites opened at 6 a.m. and so far, we’ve not received reports of poll workers not coming in,” Solis said.

“What we told them was the Secretary of State’s office would remain ready to assist them in identifying back-up polling place volunteers if needed, through the Arizona Department of Health Services’ volunteer system,” she said. “This is a network that can provide broad recruitment of personnel statewide that county election officials can use to identify poll workers in the event of a shortage.”

Campaigns spent Monday sifting through data and talking to contacts on the ground to assess the impact of the coronavirus on turnout in places that will hold elections Tuesday.

Given the fluidity of the coronavirus situation, uncertainties and challenges will continue to manifest themselves as the election moves forward.

In addition to the concerns over the virus itself, the electoral landscape continues to shift.

Ohio, as mentioned above, decided to postpone its primary, which will now be held on June 2.

Georgia was supposed to be high on the  candidates’ minds next week, but it chose to move its  Democratic primary to May 19.

That means voting isn’t scheduled again anywhere until March 29 in Puerto Rico, where island officials are also seeking a delay.

The first week in April, meanwhile, would have featured Louisiana, but its decision to delay the primary until June 20 leaves only primaries in far-flung Alaska and Hawaii and caucuses in Wyoming through April 4. 

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