Virus Stokes 2020 Turnout Worries, First Election Is Delayed

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(Bloomberg) -- Officials in the four states holding presidential primaries on Tuesday are counting on absentee and early voting to keep turnout up in the first round of balloting since people began avoiding public places out of fear of the coronavirus.

Louisiana announced Friday it was postponing its April 4 primary until June 20, long after Democratic front-runner Joe Biden is expected to have earned enough delegates for the presidential nomination, if his current track record holds. Iowa is postponing its county conventions, which determine who gets to be national delegates.

But Ohio, Florida, Arizona and Illinois are all proceeding with Tuesday’s primaries, leaving voters, especially those over 60, hearing a bit of a mixed message from state officials: Keep your “social distance” but be sure to vote!

“If voters are feeling healthy, not exhibiting symptoms, and don’t believe they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, please vote on Tuesday,” Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, said in a statement in response to Louisiana’s decision. “If voters are members of an at-risk population, exhibiting symptoms, or have been exposed to a diagnosed case of COVID-19, we encourage them to explore absentee ballots and vote by mail options.”

Bernie Sanders told reporters Friday that states faced a “tough question” about whether to delay primaries.

“The governors and the officials in the states that have elections scheduled for Tuesday have to balance things,” he said. “Rescheduling elections is not something we do lightly or should do lightly.”

Turnout in the Democratic primaries has been up as much as 69% in some states before the coronavirus outbreak pushed people into their homes to wait it out. Now, some are concerned those gains could be washed away. That could affect Biden more than rival Sanders, given that Biden’s voters tend to be older -- and more vulnerable to the virus.

“The most stable consistent voting bloc is older voters and it may affect the primaries in terms of turnout,” said Mike Franz, professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College in Maine. “Given that the Democratic nomination seems to be locked up for Joe Biden, it might depress turnout even more from those older voters.”

Still, early voting indicated the enthusiasm was still there.

“I think this is such a different election so it’s impossible to project the turnout in the next few days,” said John Mirkovic, deputy clerk in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago. Mirkovic added that about 92,000 people had already submitted their vote by mail, a number almost three times as high compared to previous elections.

Officials took to social media to encourage people to either vote early or by mail. But they also made sure people knew that the election is proceeding normally and that the polling locations would be cleaned to the standards of CDC guidelines. The county clerk of Lake County, Illinois, even asked voters who vote in person to bring their own pen.

“We’ve never gone through anything like this. We’ve had hurricanes but nothing like this,” said Joyce Griffin, the elections supervisor in Florida’s Monroe County. “I think the voters know that we’re taking care of them, but are they going to come out? I don’t know.”

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said local jurisdictions were encouraged to expand hours for early voting and pleaded for people to vote by mail.

In Ohio, voters can request an absentee ballot to vote by mail until noon on Saturday, and it will be counted as long as it postmarked by Monday or dropped off by the time polls close on Tuesday night. Voters can also cast absentee ballots early in person in their counties this weekend and on Monday.Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said the number of absentee ballots requested in Ohio so far is up slightly from 2016, but that indication of high turnout could change after Governor Mike DeWine announced Thursday he’s closing all schools for at least three weeks and banning gatherings with 100 people or more.

DeWine voted early on Friday in his home county to encourage Ohioans to do the same and to show it’s safe.Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said on the state’s website that unlike large gatherings, voting takes place mostly with small communities of neighbors and “does not reflect a situation where bigger crowds from geographically different areas come into one tight space, which could cause greater concerns about virus transmission.”Another concern in Ohio is having enough poll workers on Tuesday, especially with elderly and at-risk workers deciding not to come in. Officials are actively recruiting poll workers, and LaRose is particularly encouraging veterans and state employees to volunteer out of civic duty and to help “defend democracy.”

The high levels of absentee and early voting just might keep turnout numbers from plummeting. Early voting is so high, in fact, that officials in Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest county, don’t even expect the virus to affect Tuesday’s vote. Of the 1 million people who are eligible to vote in the primary, about 130,000 people have already cast their ballot either by mail or by early voting, said Robert Rodriguez, the county’s assistant deputy supervisor of elections. He expects another 60,000 people to vote between now and Tuesday, signaling a 20% turnout rate.

“That’s the turnout that we were expecting,” Rodriguez said.

In Arizona, most voters will have cast a ballot before Tuesday, so officials do not expect a dramatic drop in overall numbers.“Yes, it will impact turnout on election day,” said Mike Noble, chief of research at Arizona polling firm OH Predictive Insights. But, “the vast majority of folks have already voted. Seventy to 80% of the total vote will be done early by mail or by drop-offs at polling places. Most of the election has already been decided.”

With an eye on the November general election, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden Wednesday introduced a measure that would mandate emergency voting by mail. The CDC has been encouraging similar measures that allow voters to keep their distance.

“No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk,” Wyden said in a statement. “When disaster strikes, the safest route for seniors, individuals with compromised immune systems or other at-risk populations is to provide every voter with a paper ballot they can return by mail or drop-off site.”

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--With assistance from Tyler Pager and Jeffrey Taylor.

To contact the reporters on this story: Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou in Washington at megkolfopoul@bloomberg.net;Mark Niquette in Columbus at mniquette@bloomberg.net;Magan Crane in Washington at mcrane19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, Max Berley

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