State election officials around the country have been scrambling to make adjustments ahead of their primaries, including moving polling places away from locations concentrated with high-risk individuals, like nursing homes.
The top election official in Arizona’s Maricopa County, where just under 60 percent of the state’s registered Democrats live, announced that his office would mail ballots to “traditional Election Day voters” eligible to vote in Tuesday’s Democratic primary but who do not normally get absentee ballots mailed to them.
Voters are encouraged to not mail the ballots back. Instead, officials say mailing out ballots before Election Day will allow voters to drop off already filled-out ballots in an effort to limit interactions and promote social distancing.
Ohio, which is holding its primary on Tuesday, is moving nearly 150 polling places. Similar measures have been taken by some municipalities in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, which will also vote that day.
“We’re seeing that this public health moment presents challenges for elections officials,” Kristen Clarke, the president & executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said. “And its having a cascading effect … By next week, on Tuesday, we’ll see coronavirus having an even broader impact on how elections are playing out.”
Aaron M. Sellers, a spokesperson for the Franklin County Board of Elections in Ohio, said he started receiving panicked calls over the weekend from directors of elder care facilities.
“They want to limit residents’ exposure to visitors because that’s such a vulnerable population,” he said in an interview with POLITICO.
The Centers for Disease Control recently issued guidance targeted to election officials that urges states and counties to encourage mail-in voting and early voting as much as possible, in an effort to “minimize direct contact with other people and reduce crowd size at polling stations.” The CDC also urged poll workers to routinely clean and disinfect polling stations, “limit nonessential visitors” and encourage as much social distancing as possible.
Election administrators and party officials in most states have also been pushing voters to take advantage of early and mail voting, when possible. However, laws regulating voting in any other way other than in person, on Election Day, vary wildly by state.
“Staffing [flexibility], more utilization of mail ballots, being concerned about infection, providing disinfectant, all of these things are ideas that supervisors of elections are trying to implement,” Ion Sancho, a former longtime supervisor of elections in Leon County, Fla., said. “And at the last second, this is not going to be simple. This is not going to be easy. But we’re going to get through it.”
But the last-minute changes present significant challenges as well. In Ohio, Sellers said his county was not able to find replacement polling sites on such short notice, and will instead consolidate with neighboring precincts.
“It’s incredibly difficult to find good locations that are ADA-compliant and have ample parking on such short notice, plus they have to want us to be there,” he said.
Election administrators are also grappling with another coronavirus-related challenge: a dependence on elderly poll workers. “We’re getting people calling us who are apprehensive, saying, ‘Hey I just don’t feel comfortable working the polls,’” Sellers said. “So we’re finding additional people to chip in.”