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States urge alternative voting methods ahead of Tuesday primaries

Curbside voting for seniors is just one of the recommendations.
Image: US-vote-Democrats
A voter drops off a presidential primary mail-in ballot at a drop box at King County Elections in Renton, Wash., on March 10, 2020.Jason Redmond / AFP - Getty Images

As coronavirus continues to spread, election officials in the four states holding presidential primaries next Tuesday are encouraging Americans to vote by unconventional means to avoid crowds.

That usually means voting by mail or voting early to avoid large crowds in states where those things are an option — as is the case in those holding primaries March 17.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the coronavirus a pandemic Wednesday, and has recommended that election officials“[e]ncourage voters to use voting methods that minimize direct contact with other people and reduce crowd size at polling stations.”

“We have really been pushing as much as we can for voters who are concerned by polling places to take advantage of voting by mail,” Matt Dietrich, public affairs officer at the Illinois State Board of Elections, told NBC News. “That’s obviously the easiest way to avoid any kind of exposure to crowds, or lines or other people.”

Thursday is the deadline for Illinois voters to apply to vote by mail, he said.

A voter drop off a ballot in the Washington State primary, Tuesday, March 10, 2020 in Seattle.John Froschauer / AP

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said that it was still safe to vote in person, although voters who were nervous still had time to register to vote by mail or could vote early to avoid crowds.

“It’s easy to vote by mail,” LaRose told NBC News. “You’ve got to request your absentee ballot right away, though. We’re encouraging people to do it.” He added, “The Ohio Department of Health, CDC and others have made it clear that it continues to be safe to go to the polls on Tuesday and to cast a ballot."

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ office said in a statement last week that state and county election chiefs have “reviewed recommendations for preparing for and reducing exposure to COVID-19 during the remainder of early voting and on election day for the presidential preference election,” although registration to vote by mail has since passed.

On Wednesday, Hobbs’s office announced a recommendation that the state’s polling places should make curbside voting, a common option for voters with disabilities, available for elderly voters, who experts say are more at risk of serious complications from the virus.

Leslie Tate drops off her ballot in Salt Lake City on March 3, 2020.Jeffrey D. Allred / The Deseret News via AP

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee announced earlier this week that “voters concerned about COVID-19 should make themselves aware of ways to protect against exposure and should consider the vote-by-mail option.”

While all states conducting primaries on Tuesdays allow “no excuse” absentee ballots, meaning any eligible voter can vote by mail, not all states do. On Wednesday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a longstanding election reform and security advocate, introduced a bill to require states to offer that option in times of national emergency.

“As COVID-19 reaches pandemic status, the federal government needs to act as soon as possible to prepare for the worst,” Wyden told NBC News.