Tuesday primary turnout slumps amid coronavirus anxiety

The primary day turnout wave that swept over Democratic presidential contests in recent weeks crashed on Tuesday as concerns about the coronavirus outbreak kept anxious voters in Florida, Illinois and Arizona away from the polls.

Turnout in Florida’s Democratic presidential primary saw a marginal increase — about 2 percent — over 2016 levels, rising from about 1.71 million to 1.74 million. But the gains appeared to come from increased early voting, while actual in-person turnout dropped from about 820,000 four years ago to 630,000 on Tuesday.

In Illinois, nearly half a million fewer voters cast ballots in the state’s Democratic primary on Tuesday than in 2016.

Only Arizona saw a significant increase in turnout. Some 540,000 people voted in the state’s Democratic primary, marking a roughly 30 percent increase over 2016 when fewer than 470,000 ballots were cast in the nominating contest.

Like Florida, however, Arizona has a robust mail-in voting program that helped offset a decline in voting on Tuesday. More than 480,000 Democrats voted early in the Grand Canyon State, up from about 317,000 in 2016.

The hit to turnout in Florida and Illinois reflect the toll that the coronavirus pandemic has had on a critical democratic process.

So far, five states have postponed their primary elections due to the outbreak, including Ohio, which was originally slated to hold its primary Tuesday. Another state, Alabama, which held its presidential primary earlier this month, delayed a scheduled Republican Senate runoff on March 31 amid public health concerns.

“It has clearly changed a lot of minds in terms of how they think about voting,” said David Vance, the national media strategist for the watchdog group Common Cause, which called on Wednesday for states to temporarily delay all in-person voting amid the pandemic.

Before Tuesday’s primaries, turnout in other states surged well beyond 2016 levels, and in some cases smashed all-time records. In Virginia, for example, turnout in its March 3 primary surged to more than 1.3 million, toppling the previous record of 986,000 set in 2008, when former President Barack Obama was on the ballot.

But fears over the coronavirus have worsened in recent days as the number of cases in the U.S. climbed above 7,000 and spread throughout all 50 states. Government officials have issued new warnings against gathering in groups of more than 10, saying that doing so increases the risk of exposure to the disease.

The drop-off in in-person voting on Tuesday comes as the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has narrowed to two candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Biden picked up wins in all three states on Tuesday, virtually shutting down Sanders’s chances of a comeback in the race.

In a memo issued on Wednesday, Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield called on early voting to be expanded across the country, noting the outsized role it played in supplementing in-person turnout on Election Day.

“Access to vote by mail, early vote, and no-excuse absentee ballots led to increased turnout in the midst of a national crisis, and expanding this access will be an important step in protecting our democracy moving forward,” Bedingfield wrote.

On Tuesday, Sanders’s campaign abandoned traditional get-out-the-vote efforts in the three primary states, insisting that voters should decide for themselves whether they were comfortable with going to the polls amid the coronavirus outbreak.

A spokesman for Sanders said that the campaign was also distributing safety guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We are making clear to voters that we believe going to the polls amid the coronavirus outbreak is a personal decision and we respect whichever choice they make,” Mike Casca, Sanders’s communications director, said.

Matt Grodsky, the communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party, touted the state’s high primary turnout as a sign of enthusiasm among voters. But he conceded that concerns about the coronavirus outbreak may have kept some voters away from the polls on Tuesday.

“It would be unrealistic to think that it wasn’t an aspect,” he said. “We would have seen higher throughout the state without the fears.”

“Hopefully, this is all a distant memory by November,” he added. “But we see [the primary] as a good fire drill.”

Arizona reported no major issues in voting on Tuesday. But in Florida, relocated voting sites and absent poll workers in some counties led to confusion. And in Illinois, absent voting equipment at precincts and a shortage of election judges in Chicago led to long lines and delays.

Vance, the media strategist, said that the coronavirus outbreak should be a wakeup call to states to develop “contingency plans” for administering elections in the face of potential crises.

“I think the savior yesterday was early voting and vote-by-mail,” Vance said. “Yesterday would have been a train wreck in terms of turnout if everyone was voting in-person only.”

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Joe Biden

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