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Tuesday voting in Tampa Bay goes fairly smoothly amid coronavirus concerns

Turnout appeared light at polling places in Tampa Bay; on the other side of the state, Palm Beach County struggled with poll worker no-shows.
The polling place at St. Petersburg Community Church was absent of lines Tuesday morning. Poll workers said they saw a steady stream of voters, but they appeared to be trickling in one or two at a time.
The polling place at St. Petersburg Community Church was absent of lines Tuesday morning. Poll workers said they saw a steady stream of voters, but they appeared to be trickling in one or two at a time. [ Caitlin Johnston ]
Published Mar. 17, 2020
Updated Mar. 18, 2020

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Despite concerns about disruptions from the novel coronavirus pandemic, voting in Florida’s presidential primary unfolded Tuesday throughout Tampa Bay without major incident.

Light turnout appeared to mark the primary voting throughout Florida. That appeared to be driven partly by concern over the coronavirus as well as an uptick in mail ballot votes and a preordained Republican primary.

“This was a decently smooth election relative to the challenges we faced,” said Dustin Chase, spokesman for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office.

Roughly 200,000 ballots were cast in Pinellas, according to unofficial results. That’s down about 19 percent from the 2016 presidential primary, according to the supervisor of elections. In nearby Pasco County, unofficial results showed nearly 77,000 votes cast. Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said that’s considerably lower than the 2016 presidential primary, but “there was not a pandemic then and both sides of the aisle had a wide open primary.”

A surge in mail voting by Democrats appeared to offset lower numbers of ballots on Tuesday.

Some county elections officials reported higher-than-usual numbers of poll workers dropping out in the days before the presidential preference primary. Officials also scrambled to move some precincts at the last minute because they were either in places that put vulnerable populations at risk or were in communities that no longer wanted to open their doors to potential carriers.

Late Monday, a coalition of civil rights organizations sued the state for not making accommodations for voters affected by the coronavirus. It said the state should have extended vote-by-mail deadlines and taken other emergency measures so college students could vote at their college campuses. Instead, they were home, sometimes in a different county, when universities advised students not to return to campus.

Civil rights groups have also expressed concern about some older voters who may have not been able to vote because of polling place changes or worries about contagion.

Related: Florida bars and nightclubs to close, students ordered home, DeSantis says

Yet even as some other states delayed their Election Days amidst the pandemic, Florida was steadfast that its presidential preference primary would continue as scheduled and that no additional accommodations would be made. Secretary of State Laurel Lee repeatedly assured the public that voting was safe.

That was not assurance enough for lifelong voter Brian Forbes.

When the Trump Administration on Monday issued guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus that included avoiding crowds larger than 10 people, Forbes, 65, decided he just could not risk voting on Tuesday.

Forbes’ partner takes medication for arthritis that makes her more susceptible to illness, he said. And with her recent sinus infection on top of that, Forbes said he wasn’t willing to put his partner in danger.

“I’m just not going to risk it, to bring something home to her,” said Forbes, a retired land use and eminent domain attorney who lives in Clearwater.

A pandemic that experts say will only grow worse raise questions about future 2020 elections — including the all-important and closely watched November general election.

Leading up to Tuesday, some counties had warned voters of the possibility of problems on Election Day, but voting in the Tampa Bay area was uneventful, with polls opening on time and no reports of long lines or delays.

That was not true in other parts of Florida. In Palm Beach County, there were reports of precincts that had to be moved due to poll worker shortages and polling places that opened late.

Lee on Tuesday acknowledged some “challenges” but said they were isolated and said she was confident that everyone who wanted to vote was given an opportunity to do so. She said that “voter turnout has ranged from light to medium, as expected.”

Tens of thousands of Tampa Bay voters were not deterred enough by the coronavirus to skip what they viewed as their civic duties by going to a polling place.

Everlidis Santiago’s three grown sons didn’t want her to vote Tuesday. It was too risky, they said.

“Nope,’’ she answered. “We have to do this.”

The 58-year-old woman from Wesley Chapel wasn’t to be denied by the threat of coronavirus. She donned a “Kiss me, I’m Irish’’ T-shirt, accessorized by plastic gloves, face mask and hat and drove to Pasco County’s Precinct 7 at Bridgeway Church on Wells Road to cast her ballot for Joe Biden.

Santiago is disabled by multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Not voting was never an option.

“This country isn’t going in a good way. I want us to be united,’’ she said.

Kevin McNamara, 67, said he he had no apprehension when it came to voting at his precinct at St. Petersburg Community Church on Tuesday. He said poll workers were cordial and the process was smooth.

But while the coronavirus didn’t stop him from voting, he said he does think the White House’s reaction to and handling of the pandemic will play a role in some people’s vote.

“The fact that they refused to address the issue here, and now look where we’re at,” McNamara said.

The coronavirus has changed the way this election has looked and felt. Presidential contenders did not make last-minute sweeps in person through the Sunshine State as they worked to win delegates; some campaign watch parties were muted or canceled; the numbers of people standing outside polling locations advocating for their candidate appeared greatly diminished.

Joanne Westfall, 74, of Clearwater, said she was a lifelong Republican but wants anyone but Trump to win. She cast her vote for Republican long-shot candidate Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente on Tuesday, but only after first taking several precautions to ensure her safety at the polls.

Westfall said she intentionally left her purse at home so it wouldn’t have to sit on a table and get contaminated, and instead brought her ID, voter card, a black pen and hand sanitizer in a clear resealable bag. She used a wipe to hold the pen on the signature verification machine at check-in.

“We want to be cautious,” she said.

Related: Florida coronavirus cases grow to 160 with five deaths. State, residents struggle to keep up.

Times/Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas and Tampa Bay Times reporters Tracey McManus, C.T. Bowen, Caitlin Johnston, Anastasia Dawson, Kathryn Varn, Craig Pittman, Joey Knight and Sara DiNatale contributed to this report.

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