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What does an Election Day look like in the midst of a pandemic?
We’re about to find out in Florida, Arizona and Illinois, states that are holding presidential primaries Tuesday — the first Election Day since the novel coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic.
The virus has shut down schools, canceled sports events and driven people from public gathering spaces such as churches, bars, beaches and restaurants. Now it threatens voting, the hallmark of the nation’s civic life.
In recent days, Florida elections officials have watched as a growing number of poll workers have quit out of fear of the contagion. They’ve scrambled for replacements of voting sites in places that either put vulnerable populations at risk or were located in communities that refused to open their doors to potential carriers.
Yet even as states like Kentucky announced their intentions to postpone their elections amid the worsening coronavirus crisis, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday that Florida’s elections will proceed.
“At the end of the day, we’re dealing with this in a thoughtful way,” DeSantis said during a Monday afternoon news conference in Tallahassee. “But we’re not going to panic.”
Some county elections officials have worked to calm voters while others tried to limit expectations, warning of staff shortages and last-minute polling place changes that could confound and lead to longer wait times.
“There’s no hiding from the fact that now we are in dire straits between the number of workers who have dropped out and the number we need to run an election,” Dustin Chase, spokesman for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office, said Monday. He said he saw poll workers quit “by the dozens” on Monday morning alone.
Chase said more than 260 of the county’s pool of about 1,700 poll workers had dropped out over coronavirus concerns, leaving the elections office without enough replacements to fully staff its polling sites and a higher number of first-time poll workers.
More than a dozen of Pinellas’ precincts have been shifted to other polling locations, with some of those moves happening as late as Monday.
“Can I foresee lines longer than 30 minutes?" Chase said. “Yes, I can.”
In nearby Pasco County, the elections office’s phone has been “ringing off the hook,” said Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley.
He estimated that more than 15 percent of his poll workers had canceled; he’s been working with other agencies, including the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and the county school system, to get last-minute poll workers.
Corley said he understands people’s concerns, saying he was glad his mother votes by mail because he would have strongly urged her not to go to the polls.
On Monday, Kentucky announced it was postponing its election.
And President Donald Trump released guidelines that people should avoid gathering in groups of 10 or larger, which could describe the headcount at any typical Election Day precinct.
But on Monday afternoon, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee told reporters that “we are confident that voters in Florida can safely and securely go to the polls.”
DeSantis said that canceling an election sends a signal “that somehow we’re paralyzed. I don’t think that’s the case.”
Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who studies elections, said he expects Primary Day turnout to be down compared to the 2016 presidential preference primary for a number of reasons, including the coronavirus.
Smith noted that Democrats have already cast more than 632,000 vote-by-mail ballots in the primary, up from roughly 517,000 in the 2016 presidential primary. The number of Republicans who have voted by mail in their primary is down from 2016, he said, to roughly 657,000 compared with 704,000 in 2016.
He said that tracks with other trends found in early voting totals for Democrats and Republicans compared with 2016.
Overall, about two million Floridians have already voted in this election, according to state data.
Still, a significant number of people are still expected to show up to the polls on Tuesday.
Smith said some people who do want to vote on Election Day “are potentially going to be disenfranchised” by the last-minute polling place moves.
Juan Peñalosa, the Florida Democratic Party’s executive director, said in a prepared statement Monday the state party has identified 91 precincts that have been closed or relocated as a result of the governor’s call to protect at-risk populations.
He also said the party has tallied 126,731 voters — who, as of Monday, had not voted yet — who live in an affected precinct.
Craig Latimer, Hillsborough County’s supervisor of elections, said voters can still return vote-by-mail ballots to elections offices by 7 p.m. Tuesday. Voters can pick up mail-in ballots or designate someone to do it for them. If a Florida voter or designee wants to pick up a mail ballot on Tuesday, they must use an affidavit affirming there’s an emergency keeping them from going to their polling place.
Local elections officials have detailed some of their coronavirus precautions at polling locations, including providing hand sanitizer and wipes for each polling location. Some counties have told voters they can bring their own pens to the polling places. And Corley said his office was only going to make privacy sleeves available upon request, calling the sleeves “germ magnets.”
Elections officials asked voters to be prepared when showing up to polls. That includes knowing where their polling place is and bringing a valid ID with a photo and a signature on it.
Shirley Anderson, supervisor of elections in Hernando County, said her polling places will have limited amounts of hand sanitizer and encouraged voters to bring their own if they wanted, saying they could also bring their own pens, too.
She said voters should consider when to come to the polls so they don’t end up having to wait or voting when a lot of other people are there.
“Things are going to go great,” Anderson said of Election Day.
Florida’s polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Voters who have not yet turned in mail ballots must return them to their local elections office by 7 p.m. Tuesday to have them be counted.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.
Here is the current list of polling place changes in Tampa Bay as of Monday evening:
- Precinct 201: Moved from Addington Place at College Harbor to Pinellas Community Church, 5501 31st St. S., St. Petersburg
- Precinct 342: Moved from Elmcroft at Pinecrest to Christ Presbyterian Church, 3115 Dryer Ave., Largo
- Precinct 529: Moved from Mease Manor to Dunedin Assembly of God Church, 885 Lake Haven Road, Dunedin
- Precincts 256 and 264: Moved from Palm Garden of Largo to Starkey Road Baptist Church, 8800 Starkey Road, Seminole
- Precinct 629: Moved from Stratford Court to Bethel Lutheran Church, 3166 N. McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater
- Precinct 326: Moved from The Barrington Retirement Community to Largo Feed Store, 295 Central Park Drive, Largo
- Precinct 102: Moved from Westminster Suncoast to Bay Vista Recreation Center, 7000 Fourth St. S., St. Petersburg
- Precinct 631: Moved from Coral Oaks to Highland Lakes Club, 3300 MacGregor Drive, Palm Harbor
- Precinct 125: Moved from Peterborough Apartments to the elections office in the county building, 501 First Ave. N. (Fifth Street North entrance), St. Petersburg
- Precinct 541: Moved from Palm Harbor United Methodist Church to the Centre of Palm Harbor, 1500 16th St., Palm Harbor
- Precinct 603: Moved from Bay Aristocrat to Wood Valley Boys & Girls Club, 2816 Park Trail Lane, Clearwater
- Precinct 522: Moved from On Top of the World East to Sylvan Abbey United Methodist Church, 2817 Sunset Point Road, Clearwater
- Precinct 523: Moved from On Top of the World West to Sylvan Abbey United Methodist Church
- Precinct 334: Moved from the East Bay Oaks Mobile Home Park to the Election Service Center, 13001 Starkey Road, Largo
- Precinct 906: Moved from Sun Towers to the SouthShore Regional Library, 15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin
- Precincts 904 and 908: Moved from Kings Point Clubhouse to SouthShore Regional Library
- Precinct 909: Moved from the Sun City Center Community Room to SouthShore Regional Library
- Precinct 921: Moved from the Sun City Center Florida Room to the SouthShore Regional Library
- Precinct 423: Moved from the Rocky Creek Retirement Village to the Tampa Korean Seventh Day Adventist, 7215 Sheldon Road, Tampa
- Precinct 163: Moved from the Vista 400 to the Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, 1006 W. Cypress St., Tampa
- Precinct 433: Moved from Aston Gardens to the Philippine Cultural Foundation, 14301 Nine Eagles Drive, Tampa
- Precinct 560: Now will remain at University Village, 12401 N. 22nd St., Tampa
- Precinct 561: Moved from Concordia Village to the University Area Community Development Center
- Precinct 834: Moved from Hawthorne Estates to Kings Avenue Baptist Church, 2602 S. Kings Ave., Brandon
- Precinct 764: Moved from the Meadows at Countrywood to Bruton Memorial Library, 302 McLendon St., Plant City
- Precinct 55: Moved from Crystal Lakes Clubhouse to Alice Hall Community Center, 38116 5th Ave., Zephyrhills
- Precinct 87: Moved from Seven Oaks Clubhouse to St. Reweis Coptic Orthodox Church, 27137 Foamflower Blvd., Wesley Chapel
- Precinct 99: Moved from Northwood Community Center to Williamsburg Tanglewood Club, 28429 Williamsburg Drive, Wesley Chapel
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