Voting and coronavirus: Florida officials ready with handwipes, mail ballots

Tampa Bay elections officials say they’re making minimal adjustments, such as ordering sanitizing wipes for every polling location and planning to provide each poll worker with their own hand sanitizer.
Voting equipment is stacked as workers set up an early voting site in Hillsborough County.
Voting equipment is stacked as workers set up an early voting site in Hillsborough County. [ ALLISON ROSS | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published March 5, 2020|Updated March 5, 2020

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Elections officials in Florida are monitoring the spread of novel coronavirus in the state and watching for the possibility that fears about the virus could affect upcoming 2020 elections.

So far, local elections officials say they are making fairly minimal adjustments, such as ordering sanitizing wipes for every polling location and planning to provide each poll worker with their own hand sanitizer.

“We’re trying to educate the poll workers and anyone else who calls our office about what the (Centers for Disease Control) is advising,” said Dustin Chase, spokesman for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections.

Chase said that he has not yet had any poll workers call and say they don’t want to work early voting or Election Day sites for the upcoming March 17 presidential preference primary. Early voting has already begun in some Florida counties, and begins Saturday in Pinellas County.

Related: Early voting in Tampa Bay: here's where and when

Brian Corley, supervisor of elections in Pasco County, said his office is further promoting the vote-by-mail option for those wanting to avoid potential crowds at polling places. He said his office is encouraging poll workers to bring their own hand sanitizer in addition to what his office will provide at polling places.

Floridians can still request mail-in ballots through Saturday. After that, voters can continue to pick up mail-in ballots in person and return them by primary night.

Hillsborough County, which opened its early voting sites Monday, said it is simply following standard protocol while continuing to monitor and follow public health guidelines in its offices and polling places.

“Every election cycle, we have ample hand sanitizer and tissues at all poll worker training sessions and at all voting locations,” said spokeswoman Gerri Kramer.

Hillsborough had about 12,700 people participate in its first four days of early voting this week. That’s down from the nearly 14,800 early voters it had on the first four days of early voting in the 2016 presidential preference primary, but a number of factors — including more people choosing to use mail ballots — could explain the lower turnout.

Related: Hillsborough election chief: coronavirus won't affect primary
Related: Third coronavirus case found in Florida is Hillsborough patient's sister

So far, four people have tested positive in Florida, three in the Tampa Bay area. It’s still hard to tell how deadly the new virus is; some people who are infected may only have mild cases. Early data seems to indicate that people who are elderly are at a higher risk of dying if they contract the virus.

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Matt Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University, said it’s unclear at this early stage whether fears about the spread of the coronavirus could have the potential to depress turnout in some parts of the United States or change the way people are voting.

There are also questions about whether misinformation about coronavirus could be used by operatives seeking to disrupt U.S. elections.

Chris Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, reportedly told NBC News last month that foreign operatives stoking fears about a pandemic to keep some voters at home was “one of a number of scenarios” that federal elections officials are considering. The agency did not immediately respond to an email Tuesday afternoon from the Times requesting more details.

During a briefing early Tuesday afternoon, Krebs said his organization wasn’t seeing any acute increases in misinformation around Super Tuesday voting.

Voting turnout in a number of other states this week did not appear to be affected significantly by coronavirus fears.

Only a couple coronavirus-related election issues were reported during Super Tuesday, including a county in California that reportedly had to scramble for replacements after a larger number of poll workers than usual backed out at the last minute.

The clerk in Travis County, Texas, also reported Tuesday that staffing at some of its polling places was disrupted in the morning in part because of fears about the coronavirus.

Dana Hess, chief deputy for the Travis County Clerk’s Office, said issues were quickly handled and all polling sites were up and running by about 9 a.m. on Election Day. She said she could not say how many people did not show up to work the polling locations because of fears of the coronavirus, but said such concerns did play a role in the county’s issues that morning. Her office noted that many poll workers tend to be older and may have more health concerns.

“It’s not so much the coronavirus but the fear that there might be some sort of exposure,” Hess said .

It’s important for all elections officials to have contingency plans in place for any unexpected interferences in the ability for people to vote, said Rick Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California at Irvine. He said the presidential primaries will be a useful diagnostic for the general elections in November to see how well elections offices are prepared.

Voters who stopped in at an early voting site in Hillsborough County on Wednesday didn’t appear overly concerned about the coronavirus at the moment.

“I do want hand sanitizer after touching the pens,” said Mia Bush, 19, as she left the early voting room at the Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library on Wednesday morning.

Adrienne Wilson, a poll worker at that location, said she’s seen more people asking for hand sanitizer and wipes this year but also said turnout has been good in these first few days of early voting.

Exit polls in California, Texas, Virginia and North Carolina indicated that coronavirus was a factor for many Democratic primary voters in their votes on Super Tuesday, according to Reuters.

“Unless miraculously the coronavirus starts to go away in the United States, I would think that the issue of public health and the economic fallout from the coronavirus will be an important factor to a lot of primary voters,” said Dallek of George Washington University. “Will it persuade someone one way or another? That’s hard to know.”

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: What you need to know after Florida’s first positive coronavirus cases.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

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