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The vote must go on: States prep for primaries as virus looms

Polling sites moved, and sanitizer and wipes added

Despite widespread cancellations of campaign events and everyday activities across the nation amid the new coronavirus pandemic, four states with primaries next week are sending the message: Voting will go on, but with an extra dose of hand sanitizer.

Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, while encouraging early voting or voting by mail, have not canceled primary contests scheduled for Tuesday.

“You will probably see lots of sanitizing wipes being used on touch screens and on pens that are used by voters,” said Matt Dietrich, public information officer for the Illinois State Board of Elections. “There will be sterilizing wipes and facilities to wash hands before and after voting.”

Prepping for Tuesday

Illinois elections officials are working to move all voting precincts out of nursing homes, and more people have requested vote-by-mail ballots than four years ago, Dietrich said. Local election authorities had sent out about 150,000 vote-by-mail ballots in 2016. That total was more than 240,000 this year, he said, and more voters had also voted early in-person.

One of them was Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, who does not have a primary challenger in the 13th District in Central Illinois but who said he and his family voted last weekend as part of the state’s in-person early voting program.

For now, Davis said, because his part of the state did not have many known cases of the virus, he didn’t think it would dramatically disturb Tuesday’s elections back home.

“Daily life is more business as usual versus what’s shaping up here in the Beltway,” he said.

Davis serves as the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal election matters. The panel also set up a “genius bar” this week to help congressional offices with technology to allow staffers to work remotely. “A lot of offices are taking advantage of that,” Davis said.

In addition to Illinois, Ohio is also hosting presidential and congressional primaries Tuesday. David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, told CQ Roll Call earlier this week that he was concerned about Election Day chaos.

Pepper said Democrats were tentatively hopeful about turnout, but he worried that fears about the virus would keep people away from the polls. The state has had to move polling places located in nursing homes and was encouraging early voting.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine downplayed any risk to voters in an appearance Thursday evening on CNN, citing the moved polling places and early voting.

“It goes on tomorrow, it goes on this weekend, people can vote on Monday,” DeWine said. “So there’s ample opportunity to spread this out as far as the number of people who are in line at one time. So we do not anticipate any major problems on Election Day on Tuesday.”

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A spokeswoman for Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, said the state had been monitoring the situation closely and has distributed a memo that included efforts to keep voters healthy.

“Unlike large gatherings like the Arnold Fitness Classic or high attendance conferences, voting on election day takes place in small communities of neighbors who are more likely than not to interact in other ways every day — whether at school, in church, in the grocery store, or elsewhere,” the memo stated.

‘Curbside voting’

Arizona is also holding a Democratic presidential primary next Tuesday, although its congressional primaries are not until August. GOP Gov. Doug Ducey has declared a public health emergency in Arizona, and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has since issued multiple statements on preparations.

Hobbs said in a Wednesday night statement that there were roughly 20 polling places in locations frequented by seniors, and that her office was providing additional guidance to counties with those polling places. That guidance included having clear signs that “curbside voting” is available and to advise those polling places “to complete a full cleaning and disinfecting of the spaces used once the polling sites are closed down.”

Hobbs noted that Wednesday was the last day for voters to mail in early ballots, but that early in-person voting is available through Friday. She also encouraged voters to contact their county election officials to learn about options for “emergency voting.”

In Florida and Georgia, which hold presidential primaries on Tuesday and March 24, respectively, officials encouraged voters to take advantage of their state’s early voting option to avoid crowds. They also circulated information to election officials about cleaning voting machines. Georgia officials also noted that voters can file absentee ballots.

Help from Congress?

As state election officials scramble to move polling places out of senior living facilities and ensure there are ways for voters to avoid large crowds, it’s not clear whether states with upcoming elections will get any immediate help from Congress.

Congress’ response so far has been focused on a package to address the fast-moving health and economic crisis.

Sen. Ron Wyden did introduce a bill Wednesday that would require states to offer vote-by-mail options or options to drop off paper ballots in person if a quarter of the states declare a state of emergency related to COVID-19 or some other disaster.

“No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk,” the Oregon Democrat said in a statement Wednesday. His bill would provide $500 million in funding for states to implement emergency voting measures.

Spokespersons for Missouri Republican Roy Blunt and Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, the top senators on the Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees federal election legislation, did not respond to requests for comment on whether lawmakers were considering proposals to assist election officials in responding to the crisis.

One congressional hopeful called for her state to implement Wyden’s plan. Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, who is running in Georgia’s open 7th District after nearly unseating retiring GOP Rep. Rob Woodall in 2018, said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp should let people vote by mail if Kemp declares a state of emergency. The Republican governor on Thursday confirmed the state’s first death due to the virus.

“It’s pretty simple: Voting shouldn’t put your health at risk,” Bourdeaux said.

Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.

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