On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that everyone avoid social gatherings of 50 people or more, due to the threat of COVID-19. And then on Monday, President Trump upped the ante: gatherings of 10 people or more should be avoided.
Amid these rising fears, coupled with a stock market that is crashing, school closures, new travel bans and major US cities and states put on lockdown, a major question has been tapping Florida officials on the shoulder since the weight of the situation first became apparent last week:
Will the planned presidential primary election on Tuesday, March 17, go on as planned?
Then again on Monday, as Ohio — also slated to vote Tuesday — moved to postpone elections till June, the question lingered. And then Kentucky, scheduled to vote in May, decided to postpone elections, too.
Even with a moving target and a spreading virus, the state’s answer has not wavered.
“We're definitely voting. They voted during the Civil War. We're gonna vote,” Governor DeSantis declared in a press conference last week. “These primaries — the way this has worked out — quite frankly are not going to be cliffhangers."
The show will go on. Voting is safe, state officials have maintained. There will be voting on Tuesday.
“Precinct-based voting, where voters within a community cast a ballot, is nothing like the large gatherings our health professionals are encouraging Floridians to avoid,” Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee said at a press conference. “Voting is quick, it is community based, and voters and election workers can follow all health and safety precautions that have been shared with us by our healthcare experts.”
County elections offices contacted by WLRN said they are ready to continue Florida’s presidential primary elections.
Supervisor of Elections offices in Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties told WLRN that they are well prepared to receive voters. Hand sanitizers have been purchased and distributed. Clorox wipes will be available with which to wipe down the machines. And if all of that is not enough, bathrooms will be open with plenty of soap and water to wash your hands.
The biggest problem for primary day could be with poll workers — who tend to be older, the most at-risk group for COVID-19 — opting not to show up for work.
“I think that’s maybe where the department is a little bit vulnerable,” Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Christina White predicted last week.
And to a certain degree, that has borne out from what poll workers have communicated to the office.
“Every election we have attrition. The attrition rate this election has been a little bit higher than usual,” said Suzy Trutie, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections office.
The office has been looping in other county employees and seasonal workers to fill in the gaps left by poll workers who have dropped out.
“In a worst-case scenario where we have attrition on the day-of, we will make do because, to be honest, we’re not expecting a huge turnout. In the 2016 election we had about a 26 percent turnout on primary day, and there was no incumbent on the ballot,” said Trutie. “We’re expecting about a 20 percent turnout this time, which is much lighter than usual.”
Nearly 2 million voters have already cast ballots across Florida by either vote-by-mail or early voting, Secretary of State Lee said on Monday. The fact that an incumbent president is on the ticket and the Democratic Party has been narrowed down to only two candidates further brings expectations that turnout will be modest.
Moving polling places
Yet in preparation for any potential crowds, the state has taken action to protect the most vulnerable.
An order from the DeSantis administration directed every county supervisor of elections office to change polling locations away from retirement homes, assisted living facilities and other places where elderly residents gather. Elderly residents are the most at-risk group for COVID-19.
In total, 91 precincts across the state were closed or relocated. An analysis by the Florida Democratic Party identified 126,731 voters who have not yet voted that live in those precincts.
Joyce Griffin, the Supervisor of Elections in Monroe County, said she is expecting a quiet primary election day. She only had to move two precincts to comply with the statewide directive.
“There aren't lines at this election normally. There's certainly not going to be for this election,” she told WLRN. “It's just not a high-turnout election."
She likened the primary election in the Florida Keys to a “neighborhood thing” that should bring no large crowds. Only a small handful of poll workers have dropped out, she said, and everything should move smoothly on Tuesday.
Officials in Broward County reported a slightly lower number of people who voted early, but didn’t attribute the drop to anything in particular. And Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Wendy Sartory Link said she’s expecting a slow day overall.
“A huge percentage of people have already voted either by mail or by early voting,” she said.
In the case that a voter is sick, or feels that they may have COVID-19, they are being told not to go to the polls. For those cases, the state is directing the sick person to fill out and sign an affadavit that authorizes someone else to pick up the ballot from the main Supervisor of Elections office. All ballots would have to be returned to the office by 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Anyone doing this should call the elections office first for more specific information.
“We are following all guidance from the Florida Department of Health and from the CDC,” said Lee, the secretary of state. “That guidance tells us that Floridians can safely and securely go to the polls to cast their ballot on Tuesday’s presidential primaries.”