3 states hold primaries as COVID-19 fears grip nation

The new coronavirus kept some voters and poll workers at home and hampered efforts to open some polling sites on Tuesday as three states held Democratic presidential primary contests amid a global pandemic.

Leaders in Ohio called off their primary just hours before polls were set to open as the federal government urged Americans not to gather in groups of 10 or more and asked older people to stay home. The state’s Democratic Party said it was weighing options for challenging that move, which was pushed by the Republican governor.

Problems popped up across the country, including in Florida, which has the most delegates up for grabs among the states voting Tuesday. In Okaloosa County on the Panhandle, two dozen poll workers dropped out, leaving Elections Supervisor Paul Lux’s staff scrambling to train replacements.

"We are at the honest end of the rope," Lux said.

The developments were a reminder of how the most elemental act of American democracy — voting — was being severely tested as Arizona, Florida and Illinois moved forward with primaries while confronting the impact of a global pandemic. The Democratic presidential primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is playing out as the virus’ impact is becoming more tangible with schools closing across the country, workers staying home and restaurants and bars shuttering.

"It’s definitely eerie," said Jesse Lehrich, a Democratic operative and former Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman who is based in Chicago.

He said while local officials had done a good job of encouraging residents to vote early, the election in Illinois was "understandably, a bit of a mess." But more broadly, Lehrich noted, the coronavirus seems to have cast a "shadow" over the Democratic primary race in recent days, as debates over policy minutiae have taken a back seat to issues of life and death.

"Biden and Sanders are debating the merits of marginally different policies in this little pseudoreality, while America is consumed by an unprecedented crisis. That’s not a criticism of the candidates — everything else in politics feels small in the shadow of coronavirus," he said.

The big question Tuesday was whether the coronavirus would affect turnout at the polls. Biden is moving closer to securing the Democratic presidential nomination but could face a setback if the older voters who tend to support him don’t show up. Sanders, meanwhile, can’t afford to lose support from young voters who have been his most loyal supporters.

Millions of voters have already participated in some form of early voting. But there were some signs on Tuesday that voters — and poll workers — were staying home.

In Burbank, a small community southwest of Chicago, most of the voting stations stood empty at 8 a.m. Only 17 people had voted, a pace that officials said was unusually slow.

In Palm Beach County, Florida, 800 volunteer poll workers backed out on Monday and just 100 new volunteers offered to take their place.

Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Wendy Sartori Link said three polling sites had to be moved and four opened significantly late because workers didn’t show up and hadn’t given notice, leaving her and her staff in the lurch.

"We probably should have been expecting it more than we were," she said.

In Illinois, there was a push to relocate about 50 Chicago-area polling places after locations canceled at the last minute and said they would not be available for use on Tuesday. Timna Axel, director of communications for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said voters had been calling the group’s hotline all morning to get help finding their polling places.

The steady flow of calls — including from some polling place workers — is "unusual for a primary," Axel said.

Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn said Tuesday afternoon that the former vice president’s campaign watched early morning reports of low Chicago turnout with some concern Tuesday, but she said those worries abated as voters cast ballots throughout the day.

"You hear there’s no rush hour" at the polls, "and then you realize, well, there’s no rush hour at all," because so many voters are working at home. That doesn’t mean turnout won’t be lower than it would have been, Dunn said, but that voting will be "more evenly distributed throughout the day."

Both the Biden and Sanders campaigns believe that neither candidate can expect any inherent advantage from lower turnout.

The tumult surrounding the virus has left the primary campaign in a state of suspended animation.

Sanders, the last Democrat standing between Biden and the nomination, isn’t planning to drop out. His campaign looked to have nowhere to go after a big loss last week in Michigan, and another blow landed Monday night when Biden was declared the winner of the primary in Washington state, giving him victories in five out of six states that voted March 10. Yet Sanders’ top advisers see no downside to staying in the race as they assess how the coming days and weeks unfold.

"I don’t have to tell anybody that we are living in a very unprecedented and strange moment in the history of our country," Sanders said during a virtual rally on Monday, urging supporters that it may be time to "rethink our value system, rethink many of the systems we operate under."

Still, Sanders faces an increasingly tough path to the nomination. About half of the delegates in the Democratic primary have already been awarded and, if Biden has another big night Tuesday, he will pad an already large and perhaps insurmountable lead. Sanders trails Biden by more than 150 delegates nationally, meaning he’d need to win more than 57% of those yet to be allocated to clinch the Democratic nomination.

The coronavirus could amplify calls for Sanders to drop out of the race, especially if Biden comes out of Tuesday night’s primaries in an even stronger position, Lehrich noted.

"It all feels like a bizarre formality given the moment — a pointless subplot with a foregone conclusion, in the midst of an existential threat," he said.

The coming weeks will present additional uncertainties. The campaign had been set to shift to Georgia next week, but officials there have already postponed their Democratic primary until May 19. That means voting isn’t scheduled again anywhere until March 29 in Puerto Rico — and island officials are also seeking a delay.

The first week in April, meanwhile, would have featured Louisiana, but its decision to delay the primary until June 20 leaves only primaries in farflung Alaska and Hawaii and caucuses in Wyoming through April 4.

The precariousness surrounding the vote in many states comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill negotiated with the Trump administration over a financial bailout package intended to contain the economic fallout from the virus. Speaking at a White House press briefing Tuesday, Trump insisted his administration was working fast to respond to the crisis, and he said eradicating the coronavirus would help ensure future primaries go on.

"We’re getting rid of this virus. That’s what we’re doing," he said. "That’s the best thing we can do."