(Bloomberg) -- The coronavirus appeared to be depressing in-person turnout in states persisting in holding primary elections on Tuesday, changing the nature of what had been a high-interest 2020 Democratic election. But officials said they hoped early and mail-in balloting would make up the difference.
A dramatic overnight court fight ended with Ohio postponing its primary until June, but Arizona, Florida and Illinois held their primaries as scheduled on Tuesday.
In DuPage County, Illinois, the second-largest county in the state, turnout was at 23% by the time polls closed at 8 p.m. Eastern time with just over 102,112 ballots cast Tuesday, the county clerk, Jean Kaczmarek, said. Earlier, she said a turnout around 20% “would be low,” adding that 50.6% of the county’s registered voters cast a ballot in the 2016 primary elections.
“Two weeks ago, I would have thought that the turnout would have been as high as 2016 if not higher,” she said.
On Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states held their primaries, Democratic turnout had risen an average of 33% compared to 2016. Virginia saw the most dramatic rise with a 69% spike turnout, Texas saw a 43% increase from 2016 and in Tennessee, turnout increased by 38%.
Which voters are staying home could be crucial to the futures of the two remaining Democratic candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, given the generation gap among their supporters. If older voters didn’t cast their ballots by mail or vote early, and instead stayed home on Tuesday because of their vulnerability to the virus, that could hurt Biden. However, if college students didn’t vote, that could hurt Sanders.
Biden is heavily favored to win all three states, but low turnout could affect his margins of victory.
Citing elections held during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the Civil War and World War II, the Biden campaign expressed hope for solid turnout through early and mail-in ballots.
“While voter turnout on Election Day itself may be lower due to COVID-19 concerns, we believe that, with early vote and vote by mail, overall turnout will be roughly on pace for 2016 in Arizona and Florida and roughly on pace for 2018 in Illinois, and that voter turnout in all three states will reflect the population at large,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement.
Tom Perez, the chair of the DNC, urged states that have yet to hold primaries to “make voting easier and safer” by expanding vote by mail and absentee voting options.
“The simplest tool is vote by mail, which is already in use in a number of states and should be made available to all registered voters,” Perez said in a statement. “States using vote by mail should proactively mail ballots to registered voters, where feasible, and should count all ballots as long as they are postmarked by the date of the primary.”
For states planning to hold in-person voting, Perez said, the number of days and hours for early voting should be expanded. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, two-thirds of states offer no-excuse absentee voting, while the remainder require a reason.
Ohio, where 50 people have been diagnosed with the virus, was the epicenter of a battle over whether to proceed with in-person voting on Tuesday. The state health director ordered the polls closed even though a court on Monday rejected Republican Governor Mike DeWine’s recommendation that voting be postponed until June 2.
“During this time when we face an unprecedented public health crisis, to conduct an election tomorrow would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at a unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus,” DeWine said.
A last-minute attempt to keep the polls open failed when the Ohio Supreme Court, without comment, denied a request at 4 a.m. from a county judicial candidate for an order to hold the primary on grounds it was a violation of election laws for state officials to change the date.
On Tuesday, however, the Ohio Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court seeking an order to prevent the Ohio secretary of state from setting the new date for the June 2 primary. The party proposes that the court not set a new day for in-person voting but allow people who haven’t yet voted to cast absentee ballots until April 28.
Fears about the virus roiled other Democratic nominating contests as well. On Tuesday, Maryland became the fifth state to delay voting as Governor Larry Hogan announced that its primary would be pushed back from April 28 to June 2.
Maryland followed Kentucky, which announced Monday that it would delay its primary from May 19 to June 23. Last week, Louisiana announced that its April 4 primary would be moved to June 20, and Georgia said it would move its vote from March 24 to May 19.
Still, elections proceeded as scheduled in the three other states scheduled to hold primaries on Tuesday.
In Arizona, officials expected that about 80% of all votes were submitted in advance, said Sophia Solis, spokeswoman for the Arizona secretary of state’s office.
Statewide, turnout will reach about 600,000 by the end of the day, said Garrett Archer, a former official at the Arizona secretary of state’s office who is now data analyst for Phoenix television station ABC15. That’s about the same percentage -- approximately 50% -- as in 2016, Archer said.
In Florida, which has an outsized number of retirees, state officials said that the nearly 2 million ballots already cast in early voting and vote by mail had reduced the potential for heavy Election-Day traffic.
Turnout in the state’s largest county is on target to hit projections.
“Prior to the outbreak of COVID19, we had projected a 20% voter turnout for this election in Miami Dade County,” said Suzy Trutie, the deputy supervisor of elections in the county. “That means about 200,000 eligible voters. As of right now, we’re up 194,000.”
Trutie said the vast majority of ballots cast were sent in by mail, and by 2 p.m., only 33,000 people showed up to polling sites.
At the entrance to Miami’s Legion Park polling station, a large container of hand sanitizer was set up for voters to use as they walked in and out.
Inside, a half-dozen poll workers wore blue latex gloves and followed training instructions on not shaking hands, keeping a distance of at least six feet and telling voters to pick up forms themselves instead of personally handing them off.
In Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker’s office defended his push to move forward with the state’s primary election Tuesday after a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections reportedly questioned the decision.
Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for Pritzker, said in an email Tuesday that the governor’s office offered National Guard help to staff the election and to recruit volunteers.
“So instead of accepting help or offering any solutions of their own, the Chicago Board of Elections decided to wait until Election Day to get on a call with press and make politically charged accusations,” Abudayyeh said.
Meantime, work went on at polling stations around the state.
Tondalya Thomas, 41, a supervisor in the Cook County Cook County Recorder of Deeds office in Chicago, worked the phones on Tuesday to get out the vote on behalf of SEIU Local 73.
“It was pretty dead out there,” she said, noting that she still would keep making calls.
“Most of the people I talked to talked to said they voted early or will vote later today,” she said. I have not received any No’s.”
(Updates turnout in DuPage County, Illinois, in third paragraph)
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