How Primaries Are Proceeding During A Public Health Epidemic

Mar 17, 2020
Originally published on March 17, 2020 3:26 pm
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Four states had primary elections scheduled for today. One, Ohio, postponed its vote after a night of back and forth that ended at the state Supreme Court. The other three states did not postpone. Florida, Illinois and Arizona are voting today. As NPR's Miles Parks reports, that has made for an odd, difficult day for democracy.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Lori Edwards is the supervisor of elections for Polk County, Fla. She agreed with the state's decision to still hold an election today, but prepping for it hasn't been easy. Early last week, she compared it to voting after a hurricane. But by Friday, that was no longer accurate.

LORI EDWARDS: Now I actually think it's worse because a hurricane hits, you have damage, and it's over. And then you get to rebuild. And what we're finding in this scenario is that the damage keeps coming.

PARKS: Edwards had 30 poll workers no-show this morning. Other counties across the state reported as many as 800 backing out. Illinois' largest county waived all training requirements for election judges in an effort to recruit more people.

EDWARDS: There are moments when it feels like the floor is crumbling out underneath you as you get more and more calls from people that are unwilling to work or you have polling locations that, at the very last moment - like, when you're delivering the election equipment - like, oh, no. We don't want those voters here.

PARKS: Her office has been getting a lot of calls from angry voters wondering why the primary wasn't delayed, especially after Ohio, which was also scheduled to vote today, decided yesterday to delay its vote. The decision on whether to go forward comes at the state level. Here's Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

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LAUREL LEE: Precinct-based voting is unlike the types of gatherings that we have been advised to avoid in Florida. We are in the presidential preference primary, so we are not expecting large crowds or long lines.

PARKS: All three of the states voting today offered no-excuse mail voting, but the states did not extend their deadlines for voters to request absentee ballots. That meant voters needed to decide before the middle of last week if they wanted to vote by mail. That was obviously before warnings from health officials got really dire. Still, some voters did make their way today to polling stations. Karen Paxton voted in Phoenix, Ariz., and she talked to member station KJZZ.

KAREN PAXTON: You don't touch anything. Nobody touches you. So there's that distancing. There's also hand sanitizer, wipes.

PARKS: And one added benefit.

PAXTON: It's not like there's long lines (laughter). So I would encourage people to come down and vote and then go wash your hands and go back home (laughter).

PARKS: It's unclear at this point how the coronavirus will affect Tuesday's turnout. Edwards said six months ago, her office was expecting a 40 to 50% turnout rate. Now she said she's expecting something like 30 or 35%. Charles Stewart, an elections expert at MIT, said even if there is low turnout in today's elections, it's hard to read too much into that.

CHARLES STEWART: Even without the virus, I would have expected turnout to be down because on the Democratic side, there is a presumptive nominee. And we know from previous years that once you get to that point, turnout in the presidential primaries starts to - really, to fall off the table.

PARKS: In his 20 years of studying elections, he said he's never really seen a comparable event to the coronavirus in an election year, and it remains to be seen whether the states delaying their primaries or the states going forward are making the right call.

STEWART: In retrospect, it may be that we view these delays as being lifesavers. On the other hand, it could be that we view the delays as being overreaches. I mean, we just don't know at this point.

PARKS: Maryland announced this morning that it would be the fifth state in the country to delay its primary, moving from late April to early June.

Miles Parks, NPR News.

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