Washington state gears up for primary election amid coronavirus outbreak

Washington state gears up for primary election amid coronavirus outbreak

Washington state elections officials and Democratic Party leaders are hoping changes to the voting system put in place to boost turnout will also help protect voters and poll workers in the state with the worst coronavirus outbreak in the nation. 

Washington is the only one of the six states holding primaries on Tuesday that has a significant number of known cases of the novel coronavirus and officials there are taking extra precautions.

Still, they are hopeful the Washington Democratic Party’s decision to conduct its primary by mail-in and drop-off ballots rather than with caucuses, as in previous election cycles, reduces the risk of spreading the highly contagious virus. 

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The change means voters in Tuesday’s race will avoid crowds that come with long lines at polling locations or in rooms used for caucuses. 

Each voter received a ballot three weeks ago and has until Tuesday to mail it in or drop in off at a designated location.

“I think the mail-in system is one that is made for situations like this, frankly, and it’s made it super easy for people to be able to vote in that context,” Washington State Democrats Chairwoman Tina Podlodowski said. 

The swap has also increased voter turnout, she added. In the 2016 presidential caucus, Washington had a record attendance of about 230,000 people. As of 5 p.m. Friday, about 1.3 million Washington residents had voted in the primary, Podlodowski said. 

She said she’d urge all states to opt for a similar mail-in system, with an 18-day voting period and ballots with paid postage.  

Some voting centers will be operating across the state Tuesday, where residents can both register and vote. But officials don’t expect the level of crowds that turn out at traditional polling sites, King County director of elections Julie Wise said.

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Wise said voters are also encouraged to reach out if they need assistance.

“It's more than likely you don’t even need to leave your home [to vote],” Wise said.

Caucuses or traditional in-person polling locations could place voters at higher risk of spreading and contracting the virus. Coronavirus spreads between people in close contact with each other and through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, which can carry about a meter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

King County, Washington’s most populous county, has been the hardest hit in the state, with 83 of the state’s 136 confirmed cases, as of Monday afternoon. Seventeen people from King County have died from the infection; an additional death in the state was reported in Snohomish County, according to the state health department. 

Despite the outbreak, 500,000 of King County’s approximately 1.3 million registered voters had already turned in ballots as of Monday, Wise said. 

Even with the less risky vote by mail system, Washington officials are taking precautions, including recommending voters seal their envelopes with a wet sponge or cloth rather than by licking them shut.

Officials are also taking precautions to limit the risk of exposure for staffers opening ballots. Staff regularly wear gloves when opening mail-in ballots, Wise said, but now “every single employee” is wearing gloves as they work. 

She also said staff are doing regular sanitation cleanings of the area and taking hand washing breaks. 

Employees are being told to stay home if they're under the weather, but Wise said she hasn't had any more staff than usual calling in ill.

“[We’re] optimistic we’ll get through tomorrow ... and be able to continue counting ballots until we certify on March 20,” Wise said. 

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) said health officials in the state and at the federal level are working with the state Democratic Party to prioritize voters’ safety. 

"We are taking this situation very seriously and remain committed to ensuring all eligible voters are able to make their voices heard without jeopardizing anyone's health and safety,” DNC spokeswoman Maya Hixson said. “We are in close touch with health and government officials and will continue to monitor and assess the situation as it unfolds."