Primary states voting Tuesday take steps to limit coronavirus risks

“It is our job to ensure the safety of those around us while we carry out our civic duty today,” Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough tweeted.
Image: An election worker assists a voter during the Florida primary in Miami
An election worker assists a voter during the Florida primary in Miami on March 17, 2020.Eva Marie Uzcategui / AFP - Getty Images

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Ben Popken

The blue painter’s tape issued to poll workers in Cook County, Illinois, has a particularly important use this year: marking off 6-foot increments to make sure people maintain a safe distance from one another.

“It is our job to ensure the safety of those around us while we carry out our civic duty today,” tweeted County Clerk Karen Yarbrough.

Arizona, Florida and Illinois are proceeding with Tuesday’s primaries, but officials are stressing alternatives, such as voting by mail, and telling voters to be on the lookout for changes due to coronavirus precautions.

Polling places are also taking their own precautions in an effort to keep people at least 6 feet apart, the distance recommended by health professionals to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

Disruptions have already been reported in each state, with some locations closing or changing and poll workers dropping out because of coronavirus concerns.

In Arizona, Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, cut almost 80 polling places due to a lack of sufficient cleaning supplies and to ensure that those sites that remain open have enough poll workers, the county’s board of supervisors announced.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee tweeted that the state’s Department of Health “has assured healthy Floridians it’s safe to work the polls for & vote in Tuesday’s election.”

Lee reminded voters they can designate another person to pick up their vote-by-mail ballot on Tuesday for them — a provision that is meant to be used in case of emergency. After voters cast their ballots, they or their designee can return it before polls close to a designated secure drop box.

Illinois announced Monday that its in-person primary would proceed as scheduled, but Marisel Hernandez, chair of Chicago’s board of elections, said at a news conference Sunday that some areas were struggling to muster enough poll workers. More than 160 locations in Chicago have notified the city’s board of elections they didn’t want to participate. The state has seen record numbers of early voting, with nearly 140,000 voting by mail and over 16,000 early voters.

Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance for preventing the spread of the coronavirus at physical polling locations. The recommendations include encouraging mail-in or drive-up voting, urging poll workers to stay home if they are feeling ill and to regularly disinfect voting machine surfaces and tools like pens for marking ballots. Voting machine makers have also issued guidance so that disinfectant chemicals don’t damage equipment or ballots.

One state, Ohio, has postponed in-person voting until June 2 after the director of the state Department of Health ordered polls closed as a health emergency hours before they were set to open. Until then, voters can vote by mail.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said in a statement that the state’s primaries would go on.

“We have no guarantee that there will be a safer time to hold this election in the near future, and elections do not end on election day,” Hobbs said. “There are thousands of workers in communities across the state that must continue the job of counting the ballots in the days following the election.”

Arizona and Florida, with their higher proportion of retirees, present an extra concern because the elderly are more susceptible to the coronavirus.

Offsetting some of the concerns, both states use hand-marked paper ballots for most voters, meaning they will not need to use electronic touchscreens, dials or buttons. Electronic ballot-marking devices are available for those with accessibility needs.

Concerns about glitches with voting machines or process issues, which have frustrated a handful of locations this primary voting season, aren’t as much of a concern in the three states voting Tuesday, said Eddie Perez, an election administration analyst with the Open Source Election Technology Institute. NBC News has collaborated with the OSET Institute since 2016 to monitor U.S. election-technology and voting issues.

But the states are also taking extra steps to highlight different methods of casting ballots for voters to limit risks.

Arizonans can vote by mail or drop off vote-by-mail ballots at designated locations before polls close Tuesday night, Hobbs said. Some counties also offer curbside voting and drive-up ballot drop-offs.

Nearly 70 percent of voters in the state have already received a ballot by mail.

The potential for longer lines because judges or volunteers cancel proceedings or because locations take on more voters could be offset by the expected decline in turnout as voters avoid public places, said Susan Greenhalgh, an election integrity advocate.

Voters could also be surprised by location changes, which could stem from a lack of volunteers or the need to move polling locations from places with more at-risk voters, such as senior living facilities. Voters are encouraged to check with their local or state election officials to confirm their polling locations.