Light turnout expected in Florida amid coronavirus fears

Light turnout expected in Florida amid coronavirus fears
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Voters in three states are taking part in primaries on Tuesday even as public health officials warn that people should stay at home and avoid contact with other people during the coronavirus pandemic.

The fact that the primaries are going forward even as a fourth state, Ohio, put off its contest, has led to some anger online from people who say it would be safer to postpone all the contests.

The online criticism has been vociferous from supporters of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose The role (un)happiness plays in how people vote MORE (I-Vt.), who is generally expected to be thumped in the states holding contests Tuesday in Florida, Arizona and Illinois.

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Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Biden campaign sells 'I paid more income taxes than Trump' stickers Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose MORE, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, has urged people to vote if they feel safe doing so.

Florida is the biggest prize Tuesday, with 219 delegates at stake. Biden is the heavy favorite there.

Turnout is expected to be light on Tuesday, something officials said would make it safer to vote.

Nikki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and the state’s highest-ranking elected Democrat, said that officials were not expecting large crowds at polling stations.

“More than half of those we anticipated to vote in the primary have voted earlier,” she told The Hill.  

Even before Tuesday, nearly 2 million ballots had been cast in Florida’s Democratic and Republican primaries. As of Sunday, nearly 1.1 million Democrats had either voted early in-person or by mail — a more than 20 percent increase over early voting in the 2016 Democratic primary.

Around the state at polling stations, Fried said that hand sanitizer had been made available and poll workers are wearing gloves.

She said voters who do go to the polls “should keep the recommended distances. But we are not expecting crowded lines.”

Still, she advised: “If they do not feel comfortable going they need to put their health first always.”

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Liza McClenaghan, the chair of the governing board of the watchdog group Common Cause Florida, described voting on Tuesday as “a dog’s breakfast,” saying that polling place closures and a fragmented system for notifying voters of the changes had left many people confused. 

In Palm Beach County, the third largest in the state, a number of poll workers failed to show up at precincts on Tuesday morning, McClenaghan said. Over all, the county had about 800 workers cancel. 

She declined to say whether Florida should have postponed its primary in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, but said that state officials have not done enough to facilitate voting ahead of the election. 

“The state could have taken more steps to ensure that voters could have cast ballots that would count without hassle,” she said. “And the info that they’re providing could have been better provided to the voters. We asked them to provide more info about requesting mail-in ballots, we asked them to extend the deadline to accept the return of mail-in ballots.”

Still, she noted, “there are poll workers who showed up today and they’re doing their jobs. And there are supervisors of elections who are going beyond the call of duty to hold an election today, and we appreciate those efforts.”

In Ohio, the state’s top health official ordered polls closed late Monday night in order to “avoid the imminent threat” the virus poses to voters, especially the elderly and others at high risk.

In Arizona, where 18 cases of the virus have been confirmed, the state Democratic Party has insisted that the primary should proceed as scheduled, saying that the election procedures are in line with guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs defended her state’s decision to hold its primary election on schedule, saying that there is little guarantee that the situation surrounding the coronavirus outbreak will improve any time soon.

“The longer we wait, the more difficult and dangerous it could become,” she said in a statement.

“This decision was not made lightly, and what it all comes down to is that we have no guarantee that there will be a safer time to hold this election in the near future, and elections do not end on Election Day,” she said. “There are thousands of workers in communities across the state that must continue the job of counting the ballots in the days following the election.”

Matt Grodsky, the communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party, said that he still expected high overall turnout in the state’s primary. He noted that, as of last week, some 375,000 people had already cast their ballots in the nominating contest, putting turnout on track to surpass 2016. 

“It’s still early in the day, but we’ve had no reports of anything screwy happening at this point,” he said. “We don’t expect turnout to be impacted as a whole.”

Grodsky said that there had been no exodus of poll workers in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. Hand sanitizer was being supplied at polling sites, he said, and volunteers were prepared to step in to help promote “social distancing” in voting lines if they begin to crowd. 

But the coronavirus hasn’t been without impact in Arizona. Officials in Maricopa County announced last week that they would cut the number of precincts from 229 to 151 in order to ensure that the sites would have adequate staff and cleaning supplies to keep them clean.

The stress surrounding the primary was apparent in a news conference last week announcing the polling site reductions when Maricopa County Elections Director Scott Jarrett cut a public statement short and walked out of the room. 

“I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” he said, as he walked away from the lectern. 

In Illinois, the primary was taking pace a day after Gov. J.B. Pritzker limited crowd sizes to fewer than 50 people. State officials said the total number of confirmed cases had grown to 105. Dozens of polling stations had to be moved in recent days because of the virus and lacked equipment, according to the Chicago Tribune.


Officials from the Democratic Party of Illinois did not respond to a request for comment about polling conditions on Tuesday.

Asked if state Democrats considered postponing the primary to a later date, Fried, the Democratic official in Florida, said she has been “in constant communication” with Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

“She felt all the appropriate safety measures were put in place and based on the amount of people who early voted, knew the polls wouldn’t be crowded,” she said.

The Sunshine State is the most populous state holding a primary and it also has the most confirmed cases of the virus, known as COVID-19, of the three states. Five people in the state have died from the disease.

This story was updated at 1:49 p.m.