Tuesday’s Primary Elections Risk Coronavirus Chaos

But there’s simply not enough time for the states that vote Tuesday to make major adjustments, or switch to a vote-by-mail system, election experts say.

State election officials are trying to make the best of a difficult situation. They’ve encouraged people to send in absentee ballots through the mail. But in the four states that vote Tuesday, the deadline to request an absentee ballot has already passed. The next-best option, then, is for people to vote early at designated sites at some point before Tuesday, although if enough people show up at these early-voting sites, that would carry risks, too. While the early-voting period has ended in Arizona, this is still an option for people in Illinois, Ohio, and Florida.

Election officials expect that some regular voters will not show up on Tuesday, for fear of contracting the virus. But they still expect that many people—millions of them—will vote in person. And for that reason, the focus has shifted to cleanliness. Officials in each of the four states are preparing to arm polling sites with sanitation supplies, which in most cases means providing gloves for poll workers to wear, hand sanitizer, isopropyl-alcohol wipes to clean the voting machines between each use, and Clorox wipes for tables and other surfaces. Officials are encouraging people to bring their own pens to fill out forms, and training poll workers in proper equipment-cleaning and hand-washing.

The mere threat of contracting the coronavirus is already causing disruption. State officials have had to close polling locations with a high population of vulnerable people, such as nursing homes and other care facilities. Just last week, Ohio shuttered more than 100 poll locations, and election officials are still working to find replacement sites. “There could be a lot of confusion” on Tuesday, Pepper says. “People are used to going to the same place. They often will get a postcard [alerting them to a relocation], but they don’t see it, so they go to their old place.”

Poll workers, many of whom are elderly and therefore more susceptible to the virus, will be putting their health at risk if they show up for a 12- or 14-hour shift on Election Day, and a lot of them are canceling. “In a normal election, you may have a 10 percent vacancy rate. We’ve hit that number already,” John Mirkovic, the deputy county clerk for policy in Cook County, Illinois, told me. “We could potentially have 20 or 25 percent called off by Election Day. If enough poll workers from one election site call in sick or don’t show up on Tuesday, that polling location could be forced to close. Voters should check their county elections-board website before heading to the polls, Mirkovic said. “They may find that their local polling place will be shut down.”