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March 17 Democratic primaries live updates: Biden sweeps Sanders as coronavirus casts shadow over vote

Tuesday's primaries were the first since Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak.

Joe Biden defeated Bernie Sanders in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, NBC News projected Tuesday, opening up a nearly insurmountable delegate lead.

In Ohio, polls were ordered closed as a public health measure after a judge declined the governor's request to postpone the election. But contests in the other three states proceeded as scheduled Tuesday despite widespread fears over the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic.

The outbreak, which has sickened more than 5,000 people in the U.S., is thrusting the Democratic primary into uncertainty, with some states postponing their elections and the candidates forgoing rallies for virtual events.

Highlights from the March 17 Democratic primaries:

Live Blog

NBC News Primary Poll: Florida voters trust Biden over Sanders to handle Social Security

A majority of Florida Democratic primary voters trust Joe Biden more than Bernie Sanders to handle Social Security, according to an NBC News Primary Poll.

Fifty-nine percent said they would trust Biden to handle Social Security, while 37 percent said they would trust Sanders.

Read more on the NBC News Primary Poll.

NBC News Primary Poll: On immigration policy, Arizona voters nearly divided on whether to trust Biden or Sanders

Just over half of Arizona Democratic primary voters said they would trust Joe Biden more than Bernie Sanders to handle immigration policy, according to an NBC News Primary Poll.

Fifty-one percent said they would trust Biden, while 43 percent said they would trust Sanders.

 Read more on the NBC News Primary Poll.

DNC urges states to stick to primary schedule, adopt vote-by-mail instead

The Democratic National Committee is urging states with upcoming presidential primaries and caucuses to not reschedule their elections and instead adopt vote-by-mail in response to the coronavirus outbreak. 

At least six states have so far have taken steps to postpone their primary contests as cities and states shut down amidst the pandemic, but the DNC instead said states should not bring "our democratic process to a halt" and allow people to vote early or by mail on the currently scheduled dates, since no one knows when the threat of the pandemic will subside.

"Eligible voters deserve certainty, safety, and accessibility," DNC chairman Tom Perez said in a statement. 

Perez said the easiest way to allow people to vote during the crisis would be mail-in-balloting, as well as no-excuse absentee voting, where a voter can drop off their completed ballot at a central location, or expanded days and hours for in-person voting to reduce lines. 

Slightly more than half the states in the union have yet to vote in the Democratic presidential primary and all are required to select delegates to July's Democratic National Convention by June 20, under party bylaws.

States that don't comply with the rules can be penalized by having their slate of delegates diminished or even cut entirely. But Perez said the DNC may allow some "flexibility" in the process, given the extraordinary circumstances. 

“The DNC will continue to monitor the situation and work with state parties around their delegate selection plans, specifically allowing flexibility around how states elect their delegates to the national convention once those delegates are allocated based on their primary or caucus results," Perez said. 

NBC News Primary Poll: Florida voters trust Biden over Sanders to handle gun policy

A majority of Florida Democratic primary voters trust Joe Biden more than Bernie Sanders when it comes to handling gun policy, according to results from an NBC News Primary Poll.

In a state that has seen multiple mass shootings in recent years, 63 percent trust Biden to handle gun policy more than they trust Sanders; 27 percent trust Sanders more.

Read more on the NBC News Primary Poll.

NBC News Primary Poll: Most Illinois voters worried about direction of economy

Most Illinois Democratic primary voters are worried about the direction of the nation’s economy in the next year, according to an NBC News Primary Poll.

Eighty-two percent said they are worried about the direction of the national economy, including 46 percent who are very worried about it. Eighteen percent said they are not worried. 

Read more on the NBC News Primary Poll.

NBC News Primary Poll: Majority of Illinois voters very concerned about coronavirus outbreak

An overwhelming majority of Illinois Democratic primary voters said they are concerned about the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, according to an NBC News Primary Poll.

Eighty-seven percent of Illinois voters said they are concerned about the outbreak, including a 53 percent majority who said they are very concerned. 

Only 13 percent said they are not concerned about the effects of the outbreak.

Among those who are concerned, 65 percent are 45 or older, and 35 percent are under 45.

Read more on the NBC News Primary Poll.

NBC News Primary Poll: Voters trust Biden over Sanders to handle a major crisis

In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, majorities of voters in the Florida, Illinois and Arizona Democratic primaries said they trust Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders to handle a major crisis, according to NBC News Primary Poll results.

Seventy-one percent of Florida voters, 64 percent of Illinois voters and 63 percent of Arizona voters said they would trust Biden more than Sanders to handle a significant crisis.

Read more on the NBC News Primary Poll.

Despite low turnout, Biden camp says early voting making for legit numbers overall

With hours to go until polls close in Arizona, Florida and Illinois, the Biden campaign is downplaying any concern that low in-person turnout because of the coronavirus outbreak is not representative of the electorate, pointing to early voting numbers to back their point.

“While voter turnout on election day itself may be lower due to COVID-19 concerns, we believe that, with early vote and vote by mail, overall turnout will be roughly on pace for 2016 in Arizona and Florida and roughly on pace for 2018 in Illinois, and that voter turnout in all three states will reflect the population at large,” spokesperson Kate Bedingfield wrote in a campaign memo.  

Pointing to a mix of internal and publicly available early voting data, Bedingfield wrote that Biden's campaign believes it will still “emerge tonight with a bigger delegate lead than we had going into the night." The memo says early voting numbers in the three states are far higher than in 2016. 

Arizona senior forced on odyssey after polling place closed

As pandemic throws elections into chaos, advocates call for national vote-by-mail

Calls are growing for states to expand voting-by-mail options ahead of the November election as the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted in-person voting in primary elections across the country.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced a bill Monday that would mandate emergency mail-in-voting in all states and the Brennan Center for Justice recommended officials consider "a universal vote-by-mail option” as they respond to the crisis.

The progressive advocacy group Stand Up America, meanwhile, on Tuesday launched a six-figure campaign to pressure Congress to expand vote-by-mail options, the group told NBC News.

The group is running digital ads, sending text messages to the 400,000 people on its SMS list, and creating videos and other social media content to encourage Americans, many of whom are now stuck at home, to call their members of Congress. The campaign has generated about 17,400 calls to Congress within the first few hours.

Primary elections scheduled for Tuesday have created confusion and other issues, with Ohio abruptly closing its polls, despite a court order to the contrary, and Chicago election officials sparing with the state's governor over whether to keep election going as they reported extremely low turnout.

So far, in addition to Ohio, Georgia, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, Wyoming, Maryland and Kentucky have postponed their primaries or canceled in-person attendance. 

Washington, the hardest-hit state by COVID-19 outbreak, was able to proceed with their primary last week in part because it votes entirely by mail, state officials said. The state is one of four — along with Oregon, Hawaii, and Colorado — that have transitioned entirely to mail-in balloting, while the vote-by-mail has increased across the country as more states provide it as an option to voters.

Advocates, who have long argued that sending ballots to voters increases participation in elections, say concerns about crowded places have made the need for remote voting more urgent than ever.

Early voter turnout around Chicago 'remarkably low,' elections official says

Some measures of Chicago-era voting are showing very low turnout compared to previous elections.

Just over 10,000 Chicago voters had cast a ballot in the first hour of voting, said James Allen, a spokesperson for the city board of elections in a call with reporters on Tuesday.

“We had extremely low turnout,” Allen said, adding, “We also suspect there is a lot concern about going to any public place with more than 10 people."

In nearby DuPage County, fewer than 45,000 voters had cast their ballots as of noon Tuesday, the county said, on pace for a sharp decline from its turnout last election. The county already had nearly 49,000 recorded ballots cast in early voting or by mail; in the 2016 primary, it recorded almost 290,000 total votes.

Tuesday's results were "remarkably low,” said Matt Dietrich, spokesperson for Illinois' board of elections. He expects similar results statewide. “When we get the official numbers, I seriously doubt that we’re going to have anything close to the 33 percent average that we’ve had since 2000 in presidential primaries,” he told NBC News.

Chicago's board of elections had called for Illinois to delay of its primary amid the coronavirus outbreak, Allen said. But Dietrich said state law only allows such a delay by a lawsuit, something the state board was not inclined to pursue.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker's press secretary said Tuesday that the governor did not want to "risk confusion and disenfranchisement in the courts." "No one is saying this is a perfect solution," his press secretary, Jordan Abudayyeh, said. "We have no perfect solutions at the moment. We only have least-bad solutions."