Coronavirus fears cause poll worker dropouts, safety concerns ahead of Florida primary

Election officials across the country are moving to make last-minute changes to how and where voters will cast their ballots in the remaining primary elections as the U.S. grapples with the widening coronavirus outbreak.

The states voting in next Tuesday’s primary – Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio – are all taking extra precautions to protect both voters and poll workers from COVID-19, including moving polling locations, recruiting reserve poll workers and encouraging populations most at risk from the virus to vote early or send in an absentee ballot.

Maybe nowhere is taking the precautions more seriously than in Florida, where residents – including the state’s more than 4.3 million people over the age of 65, or about 20 percent of the state’s population – will head to the polls next Tuesday. The elderly and those with underlying health conditions are most at risk of developing serious complications if they contract the coronavirus.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that nursing homes are at the highest risk of being affected by the virus – given the age of residents and the close quarters in which people live – but nursing homes are also popular locations for polling sites.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called the use of nursing homes as polling sites “problematic” during a news conference on Wednesday and suggested that if a polling site is at one of these facilities, only residents should be able to vote there.

In Pinellas County – home to Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg – election officials said they will be rerouting voters slated to cast a ballot at a nursing home to the next closest polling place.

Another issue facing election officials in the Sunshine State is a dearth of poll workers as fears grow of contracting the coronavirus.

During the last presidential election, 56 percent of poll workers in the country were 61 years old or older, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and Florida officials say workers are dropping out in huge numbers.

In Florida’s Pasco County, supervisor of elections Brian Corley told the Tampa Bay Times that he is “hemorrhaging” workers, after 30 people dropped out due to fears of the coronavirus. Corley is now asking the county’s sheriff’s office for employees to fill the void and wants DeSantis to open large, centralized voting centers if they can’t wrangle up enough volunteers.

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“You have to think of every possible scenario of what you can do and how you could pivot,” Corley said.

On the opposite side of the state, elections officials in Palm Beach County last month recruited around 300 extra poll workers in preparation for concerns over the virus – a prudent move as 325 workers had canceled as of Tuesday.

Nearby Broward County has more than 4,000 poll workers for 577 precincts at 421 locations, and officials there say they are confident they will have enough people manning the polls to pull off next Tuesday’s primary.

“We have recruited and have backups for far more poll workers than we need at this point in time,” Broward Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci told the Florida Sun-Sentinel. “To date we have not had any issues ensuring adequate staffing.”

Both counties are also shifting polling sites away from nursing homes and beefing up supplies of hand sanitizer, wipes, soap, alcohol and paper towels at sites.

The other states voting next Tuesday are also taking precautions to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus at polling sites.

In Arizona – whose 1.2 million seniors make up over 17 percent of the state’s population – polling sites are being moved away from nursing homes to churches, libraries and American Legion headquarters. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs also announced on Thursday that the state will allow curbside voting and is encouraging people to vote early. The state will also be thoroughly cleaning each polling site throughout the day.

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“We are encouraging these additional precautions for certain voting locations,” Hobbs said in a statement. “We also want to remind voters to make a plan for participating in this election.”

The Democratic National Committee announced Thursday that it was moving Sunday's presidential debate from Arizona to Washington, D.C. because of concerns about coronavirus.

The party had already announced that the debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders would be held without a live audience. Now the location is changing due to concerns about cross-country travel.

In addition, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos no longer will moderate the debate because he was in proximity to a person who was in direct contact with another individual who tested positive for the virus. The DNC says Ramos is not symptomatic.

Ohio elections officials are also shifting polling sites away from nursing homes and permitting curbside voting as well as encouraging any poll workers who feel ill to avoid coming in to work.

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"While we certainly don’t want poll workers to participate if they aren’t feeling well, we are working with our county boards to ensure a healthy voting environment," Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in a press conference.

In Illinois, elections officials in Chicago were mulling over a clause in the Illinois Constitution mandating that elections are “free and equal” amid arguments that the coronavirus outbreak prevented a “free and equal” election.

State law, however, does not explicitly allow for elections to be postponed and officials in the Windy City told the Chicago Sun-Times there is “no chance” the city will delay the election.

Much like the other states voting on Tuesday, Illinois is also moving polling locations away from nursing homes and advising people to mail in ballots whenever possible.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.