ST. PETERSBURG, Fla (AP) — Election officials across Florida scrambled to run Tuesday’s presidential primary as smoothly as possible despite fears of the new coronavirus, with some poll workers dropping out and many voters wary of approaching any crowds.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. in a key showdown between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, but it was possible some stations wouldn’t be staffed enough to accommodate voters.
At least five polling stations couldn’t open in Palm Beach County because workers didn’t show up, that county’s elections department said. The county had 800 volunteers back out as of Monday, with 100 new volunteers offering to take their place.
A coalition of progressive groups sued the state of Florida, citing the disruptions in an attempt to get mail-in balloting for the presidential primary extended into next week.
In the Tampa suburb of Riverview, Nick Campbell, 39, ventured to a polling station with his wife and their 11-year-old daughter, taking precautions to not get infected with COVID-19.
They were armed with masks and gloves, but when they saw there were no other voters, they opted to don only their purple nitrile exam gloves. The door to their polling place – a library – was open – and the four poll workers inside sat behind a table.
“I didn’t touch anything. It was a very sterile operation,” he said.
But Jonathan Castoire, a Broward County telecommunications engineer, said he couldn’t vote Tuesday because he has multiple sclerosis and his voting station is in a senior center. He felt that would be too dangerous.
Castoire said he tried calling elections officials for help, but got nowhere, leaving him feeling like he has been given “an ultimatum” to choose between his health and his right to vote. “That’s not right,” he said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis decided Monday to push ahead with the voting, saying he believed the election could be run safely despite the outbreak. Also voting on Tuesday were Illinois and Arizona. After Ohio’s health director ordered polls closed there, that state’s election was rescheduled for June 2.
“We’re not going to panic,” DeSantis said. He said polling places likely wouldn’t have large crowds on Tuesday, in part because 1.9 million Floridians already made their choices via mail or early voting. “I think you can do it in a way that’s going to protect people.”
Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority and Organize Florida asked a federal judge on Tuesday to order Florida to allow voters to request a mail-in ballot through March 24 and postpone the count until March 27.
The groups cited the sudden relocation of 112 polling places in 22 counties and the fear voters will have if voting in-person is their only choice at this point. Also, college students have been suddenly sent home and cannot vote at their registered sites on or near campus, they said.
The state is distributing cleaning supplies to counties, including hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes, but Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux said he had to send a staffer to Orlando to pick them up Sunday — a seven-hour drive when manpower is already lean. They came back with 15 tubs of disinfectant wipes, dispensers and 200 1-ounce (30-milliliter) bottles of hand sanitizer for poll workers to share at their tables.
The Sunshine State has 219 delegates at stake, the biggest prize of the day’s primaries, and the potential knock-out blow for Sanders, who had an early lead but saw Biden surge ahead in delegate count in a flurry of primaries earlier this month.
Biden promotes himself as a moderate with broad appeal to Democrats, Republicans and independents. Sanders is banking on a coalition of black, young and working-class voters energized by his transformative vision for America.