A Primary? In a Pandemic?

Voting is the opposite of social distancing. But Americans in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois are still heading to the polls.

An election official sits in a chair while waiting for voters to arrive at a polling station in Miami, Florida, U.S., on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Voters in Florida, Illinois and Arizona were trickling into the polls Tuesday as the coronavirus pandemic continued to wreak havoc on the Democratic presidential primary calendar with Ohio postponing its contest, citing a public health emergency.
An election official sits in a chair while waiting for voters to arrive at a polling station in Miami. (Jayme Gershen / Bloomberg via Getty)

Americans are supposed to be avoiding one another right now. But they’re still convening at the polls.

Hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—of voters in Arizona, Illinois, and Florida today will grasp the same door handles, drag their fingers across the same touch-screen voting machines, and wait in long lines with dozens of other people as they participate in the next series of primary contests.

All three of these states have reported multiple cases of the coronavirus, making the elections today a major health risk, says Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “When you bring people together in close proximity for extended periods of time, that is where you see explosions of disease,” she told me. “It’s tough to stay apart when you’re standing in a line” to vote.

The threat of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, is likely to compound some of the problems already plaguing America’s election systems: Coronavirus fears could lead to depressed turnout, longer lines, and general confusion for voters on Election Day, experts worry. “This is building up to a level that it could clearly cause real problems,” warns David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. And if states don’t start planning now, the virus could impede the general election too.

Election officials are in a difficult situation. They want to protect the physical health of both voters and poll workers, but they’re also tasked with preserving the democratic process. Georgia and Louisiana recently postponed their primaries, and Ohio—which was set to vote today—canceled in-person voting over concerns about the coronavirus. But Arizona, Illinois, and Florida are carrying on mostly for logistical reasons, officials have said. They’ve secured polling places, hired poll workers, mailed out absentee ballots, and negotiated with the national parties about timing. “To upend all that is a pretty big step,” especially when it’s still not clear when it will be safe to reschedule, says Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “I think it makes sense to move ahead and just do it in an imperfect way.”

But why, I asked Burden, can’t states just mail everyone ballots and give them a few weeks to mail them back? The answer, he said, is that many election dates are written into state law, and an all-mail system would require infrastructure that doesn’t already exist in many places. “We should be cautious about viewing vote by mail as a cure-all,” he said. “In such a tight time frame, it’s just not going to work for a lot of states.”

Ahead of today’s voting, election officials in Arizona, Illinois, and Florida encouraged people to send in absentee ballots or vote early at designated sites. But while officials predict that some regular voters will not show up today, they still expect that many will vote in person. So their focus has shifted to cleanliness. Officials in each of the three states are preparing to arm polling sites with sanitation supplies. In most cases, that means providing gloves for poll workers, hand sanitizer for voters, isopropyl-alcohol wipes to clean the voting machines between each use, and disinfectant wipes for tables and other surfaces. Officials are also encouraging voters to bring their own pen to fill out forms, and they’re training poll workers in proper equipment-cleaning and hand-washing techniques.

The mere threat of contracting the coronavirus has already rattled the election process in the three states voting today. State officials have had to close polling locations with a high population of vulnerable people, such as nursing homes and other care facilities. Poll workers, many of whom are elderly and therefore more susceptible to the virus, will be putting their health at risk if they show up for a 12- or 14-hour shift on Election Day. “For people over the age of 60 or people who have underlying health conditions, I would not volunteer as a poll worker,” Watson said. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine echoed that concern late last night when he announced the closure of the state’s polls. “To conduct an election tomorrow would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus,” he said in a statement.

It makes sense, then, that an unusual number of poll workers, who include paid monitors and volunteers, have been canceling their shifts. It’s common for 10 percent of workers to not show up on Election Day, says John Mirkovic, the deputy county clerk for policy in Cook County, Illinois. Yesterday, Cook County was “hovering between 20 and 25” percent, he told me. To make up for that, election officials have asked young, healthy people to work at polling sites—especially students whose classes might have been canceled amid the outbreak. It’s often paid work, and many officials are relaxing training requirements out of sheer necessity, Mirkovic said.

If enough poll workers from one election site call in sick or don’t show up, that polling location could be forced to close. Voters should check their county-elections-board website before heading to the polls, Mirkovic said. A worker shortage could also mean fewer people directing traffic inside polling places and running the voting machines. “If [poll workers] decide not to come, it would be hard to replace them” the day of, says Michael Hanmer, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland. Lines will be longer, he says, and more mistakes will be made, including errors checking people in and eligible voters being turned away.

These problems are likely to get worse as the primary season wears on. “We’re going to see a lot more disease over the next few weeks,” Watson said. “If leaders can consider other methods to vote, as well as postponing these primaries, that is definitely worth considering.” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, for example, recently introduced legislation that would allow all Americans to vote by mail ahead of the general election. And states voting later in the spring will have more flexibility to extend their absentee-voting deadlines and relax their early-voting rules.

The counterargument to making these changes: Postponing primaries sets a bad precedent. If states are able to delay primary elections easily, a politician or political party might be tempted to try to change the date of a general election. Right now, that’s not possible, because federal law determines when general elections happen, but if someone attempted to move one, “there could be chaos,” Burden said.

The silver lining to all this disruption is that Americans are living out a worst-case election scenario, in real time, before November. States should be better prepared for administering the general election—including new vote-by-mail systems or other absentee options—if there is a resurgence of the virus or some other disastrous event. “States will learn a lot from what happened this winter and spring, and they have time and will have more resources to make alternative planning for the fall,” Burden said.

But for now, the many Americans on their way to the polls need to know that they are taking on certain risks. They will have to decide individually “whether voting is important enough to do that,” Watson said.