States scramble to prepare for Tuesday's primaries amid coronavirus

States scramble to prepare for Tuesday's primaries amid coronavirus

States voting in next week’s primaries are scrambling to prepare for the contests as coronavirus spreads across the U.S. 

State election officials in Florida, Arizona, Ohio and Illinois are following advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and are encouraging people to vote early or mail their ballots in ahead of their primaries on Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, voters who can only make it to the polls on primary day have been asked to arrive at off-peak times in an effort to avoid close contact in long lines. The CDC has also recommended drive-thru voting for eligible voters in districts where the practice is allowed. 

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Polling places have been impacted by the outbreak and have scrambled to make adjustments for safety. 

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs pointed in a statement to recommendations from the Department of Homeland Security advising the “full cleaning and disinfecting of the spaces used” after a site is shut down.

Ohio is also similarly sanitizing its polling sites.

“We have been garnering supplies,” said Aaron Sellers, the spokesman for Ohio’s Franklin County Board of Elections. “We’re going to have hand sanitizer, tissues, vinyl gloves that we’re going to have at all of our locations. We’re going to have supplies to clean things down.”

The measures by the four states voting next week comes as Louisiana on Friday announced it would postpone its primary set to take place on April 4 because of coronavirus fears.

The governors in all four states voting on Tuesday have declared states of emergency over the coronavirus. There were 34 confirmed cases in Florida as of Thursday, while Illinois officials on Wednesday confirmed 25 cases. 

Nine people were confirmed in Arizona to have coronavirus on Wednesday, while five people have tested positive for the virus in Ohio. 

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Additionally, Ohio’s health department director, Amy Acton, estimated on Thursday that over 100,000 people in Ohio, or nearly 1 percent of the state's 11.7 million, could have the coronavirus.

The precautionary measures being taken in the next round of primary states mirror a number of the practices taken by those that voted this week. 

Although there were no confirmed cases in Michigan at the time of its primary, poll workers in the state cleaned voting equipment between voters. Hand sanitizer was also made available on polling tables. 

Concerns are also being raised about the cleanliness of mail-in voting.

The CDC has urged poll workers handling mail-in ballots to practice hand hygiene on a regular basis. 

Washington’s secretary of State had urged voters ahead of its primary last week to seal ballots with a wet sponge or cloth, instead of licking it. The state uses mail-in ballots for all voters.

States have also taken measures to protect their elderly populations, who are highly susceptible to the virus and tend to be on the front lines of the voting process. 

Most poll workers tend to be older as well, raising concerns for polling places and the workers themselves, ahead of primary day. 

“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,” Sellers from Ohio said. “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.” 

According to the Election Assistance Commission survey, 56 percent of poll workers were aged 61 and older. 

Senior facilities often double as polling places during elections as well. 

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced on Tuesday his state would be relocating 128 polling places out of nursing homes before the March 17 primary. 

Measures have also been taken in Chicago, one of the most transient cities in the country. The city’s Board of Elections Commissioners announced this week that it plans to relocate all polling places that were previously set to be in nursing homes during the primary. The board of elections also said it will provide nursing home residents with vote-by-mail ballots. 

Florida’s senior voters stand to be impacted by the outbreak as they prepare to vote. 

People over 60 make up 23 percent of Florida’s population, making the group a key voting demographic in the state. 

Voters in the Sunshine State have been encouraged vote early or by mail by elections officials. 

Mark Ard, a spokesman for Florida’s Department of State, said they have provided guidance information on precautionary measures to county supervisors of election. 

Despite the risks posed by coronavirus, state officials also note mitigating factors, including that turnout in some of next week's primaries were expected to be lower than the average general election.

Florida is a closed primary state, meaning voters unaffiliated with a party cannot vote in a partisan contest. That naturally leads to fewer voters than in an open primary or general election. 

“This election is going to have a lower turnout just by nature. It’s not because of COVID-19,” Robert Rodriguez, a spokesman for Miami-Dade County’s election department, said referring to the county’s turnout. “This election would normally have a 20 percent voter turnout, which here in Miami-Dade County would be about more than 200,000 voters.” 

Illinois and Ohio are semi-open primary states, meaning voters can cross party lines when casting their ballots. Arizona’s primary allows unaffiliated voters to cast ballots.  

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There are also signs that more voters are casting their ballots by mail.

Rodriguez said 130,000 voters in the Miami-Date county have already cast their ballots early and by mail, leaving potentially over 70,000 voters left to vote between Thursday and Sunday, which is when early voting ends. 

Meanwhile, in Ohio's Franklin County, there has been an uptick in early voters during the coronavirus outbreak this year. 

“At our early vote center, which has been open for 24 or 25 days, we have voted double the amount of people that we did in the same period in 2016,” Sellers said. 

-- Updated at 1 p.m.