In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana became the first state to delay their primary, which was scheduled for April 4. The Wyoming Democratic Party also canceled the “in-person portion of their upcoming vote” on the same date. Yet, despite health risks, state officials in four states intend to proceed with their primaries on March 17.
Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio are in states of emergencies. The potential of contracting the virus is heightened if voters stand in lines at polling places. Polling place workers may potentially be exposed to the virus. Voter turnout may be significantly lower as a result of fears.
Nevertheless, Secretary of State Kathy Hobbs of Arizona, Secretary of State Laurel Lee of Florida, Elections Board Chairman Charles Scholz (IL), and Secretary of State Frank LaRose Of Ohio put out a statement insisting Americans have “participated in elections during challenging times in the past,” and they would be able to do so on Tuesday.
“Unlike concerts, sporting events, or other mass gatherings, where large groups of people travel long distances to congregate in a confined space for an extended period of time, polling locations see people from a nearby community coming into and out of the building for a short duration,” the political representatives declared.
The officials added, “Guidance from voting machine manufacturers on how best to sanitize machines, guidance from CDC on best practices for hand washing, and guidance from our respective state health officials is being provided to every polling location.”
“Our priority is ensuring that people are healthy and safe,” the Wyoming Democratic Party stated. “Holding public events right now would put that in jeopardy so this is the responsible course of action.” (Wyoming holds a caucus.)
Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin delayed the primary until June 20. “Safe and secure elections also mean safety to the people of Louisiana,” Ardoin contended.
Stunningly, a Democratic National Committee spokesperson expressed concern to POLITICO about how this violates a DNC rule on timing, “which provides that all states hold their contests by June 9.
“Any violation of our rules could result in a penalty that would include a state losing at least half of its delegates. This change will be reviewed by the Rules and Bylaws Committee,” the spokesperson added.
It would fly in the face of all the steps businesses, groups, organizations, and governments are taking out of an abundance and over-abundance of caution to prevent the spread of the coronavirus if the DNC penalized Louisiana for postponing their primary.
Voters stood in long lines on Super Tuesday for two hours or longer. Texas experienced “multi-hour wait times.” One voter at a polling station in the state waited for nearly 7 hours to vote.
Journalist Ari Berman reported on “long lines in heavily Democratic cities across the state, including Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. While voters in California also faced delays due to a shortage of polling locations and problems with new voting technology, the longest waits took place in Texas, particularly in Houston’s Harris County, where the population is 43% Latino and 19% black.”
Texas had closed 750 polling sites in the state, since 2012, and so the question must be asked: to what extent will the country see voter suppression in Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, and Florida, and how will those long lines put voters’ health at risk and how many will choose not to vote if they are afraid to stand in line?
The four states have relocated polling places away from “senior living facilities.” Postcards were mailed to at least thousands of residents in Arizona, notifying them of a polling place change. Residents with limited mobility will supposedly be accommodated in Arizona, yet will the state have enough resources to assist all the people who may be in need?
In 2016, USA Today reported “long lines were the norm in Maricopa County.” The county felt the strain of “serving thousands of voters in 60 polling sites, a reduction of nearly three-quarters from four years ago.”
Ohio election officials indicated “about 75 voting locations around the state would need to move to alternative locations to prevent the spread of the virus to residents who live in senior living facilities. But that swelled to 128 on Tuesday.”
While seeking to protect the elderly, state officials are seemingly discounting the health risk to elderly voters, who are turning out in substantial numbers in the 2020 primary.
If elderly people are discouraged from going to shop at a grocery store, where they may brush up against someone who has the virus, why isn’t there as much concern about elderly people going to polling places on March 17?
Older adults are most vulnerable to the coronavirus, and they typically make up more than half of the workers who staff polling places. In 2016, “56 percent of poll workers in the country were 61 years old or older, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and Florida officials say workers are dropping out in huge numbers.”
Florida is scrambling for “last-minute volunteers,” according to the Tampa Bay Times. “Since the state announced the first coronavirus case in Pasco County late Tuesday, that county has been “hemorrhaging” poll workers, said Brian Corley, Pasco’s supervisor of elections.”
Tampa Bay Times additionally reported, “Pasco’s 30 coronavirus-related dropouts coupled with other poll workers dropping out means his office has largely burned through its reserves of election workers, Corley said. His office has reached out to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office to ask if it had employees to fill the void.”
For Illinois, the state must relocate 94 Election Day polling places in Chicago. “More than 32” places in the populous Cook County suburbs need to be changed as well.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported:
“It is entirely unprecedented in the history of Chicago elections, going back to 1837,” said Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
The number of Election Day switches has steadily ticked upward. Chicago precincts without polling places rose from 24 Thursday morning to 94 by evening.
“We are working with the city’s Office of Emergency Management in an attempt to resolve those issues so that we may deliver supplies to new locations by Sunday and Monday,” Allen said.
The crisis could be avoided by moving the primary to May or June. Risks to the health of polling place workers would not be a concern. However, rather than help doctors, nurses, hospitals, and medical professionals by postponing in-person voting, Ohio has attempted to rally polling place workers to “defend democracy,” as if freedom dies if residents let the coronavirus keep them from voting on March 17.
“A lot of poll workers are older, so we’re having a lot of them call in, telling us that they can’t work Tuesday,” Aaron Sellers, the spokesman for Ohio’s Franklin County Board of Elections, told The Hill. “So for every new person that we’re getting, we’re having three saying that they can’t work. So we’re scrambling around to fill spots.”
Throughout all four states, officials maintain “sanitizer, disinfectants, disinfecting or antibacterial wipes, disposable gloves, rubbing alcohol, or isopropyl and other sanitizing materials” is adequate to control the risk. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out, “Based on what is currently known about this virus and similar coronaviruses, spread from person-to-person happens most frequently among close contacts (within about 6 feet). This type of transmission occurs via respiratory droplets.”
Do states have the resources to provide masks to every person entering a polling place or standing in line to go inside a polling place? Because the risk of someone coughing and spreading the virus seems more significant.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, was asked during a press conference about whether states should delay their primaries.
“That’s a tough question, and I’ll tell you why,” Sanders replied. “Elections are the bedrock of our democracy, and we don’t want to be delaying elections on a willy nilly basis. On the other hand, if my memory is correct, in states like Ohio, and in many other states, schools are being closed down. The NBA has ceased the season. Broadway is now shut down. So there is obviously now a growing concern about bringing people together and spreading the virus.”
“I think the answer to your good question is this is an issue, where the doctors and the scientists and the public health officials are going to have to be weighing the risk. I don’t think there’s anybody out there, no matter what your political view, who wants to see people become infected because they are voting,” Sanders added.
Another reporter asked Sanders a follow-up question related to what the impact on voter turnout may be if the primaries are held during the outbreak.
“We are told right now that we should stay away from other people. That we don’t want to see the virus being spread. And in state after state, schools are being shut down. Large functions are being shut down. But your point is an additional point, which I think is right,” Sanders answered.
“If child care centers are being shut down, and they are, if schools are being shut down, and they are, what are parents supposed to do? What do they do? Well, they’re going to have to stay home and take care of their kids. Can you go out and vote when you’re staying home and taking care of your little kids? The answer is you can’t.”
Sanders concluded, “Elections scheduled for Tuesday have to balance things. Rescheduling elections is not something that we do lightly or should do lightly. On the other hand, at this particular moment, it is absolutely appropriate that public officials, governors, etc, listen to public health officials, and your point is also important to make sure that everybody who wants to vote has the right to vote and that may not be the case today.”
To avoid the risk of fueling the coronavirus outbreak, which could result in severe illness or deaths, several medical professionals signed on to an open letter to secretaries of state and the DNC to reconsider their plan to hold the primaries next week and to extend mail-in voting until later dates in May or June.
Sign on to the letter here.