How to Know If You Should Vote in Person

A voter casts a ballot in the primary election in Chicago, Ill., on March 17, 2020.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Democratic National Committee on Tuesday warned that states postponing their primaries in order to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic could be heavily penalized at the national convention, including by losing 50 percent of their delegates.

Among the four states scheduled to hold primaries today — Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio — only Ohio postponed. The warning by the DNC comes as election officials in the states that did push ahead with in-person voting Tuesday are confronting record-low levels of turnout. Election judges and volunteers declined to show, and critical cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer were missing.

There is simply no way to comply with CDC guidelines and also hold those elections as scheduled.

The DNC could instead have decided to penalize states that go forward with elections amid a public health catastrophe. Its decision to focus on Ohio instead sends a clear signal that the party brass wants the in-person elections to go ahead, flying recklessly in the face of new guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House.

“If you are an older person, stay home and away from other people,” the latest guidelines read. “If you are a person with a serious underlying health condition that can put you at increased risk (for example, a condition that impairs your lung or heart function or weakens your immune system), stay home and away from other people.”

There is simply no way to comply with these guidelines and also hold those elections as scheduled. Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, who has been among the most proactive leaders in the country in mitigating the pandemic, moved late Monday to postpone the primary. But a judge rejected his order, insisting that it would set a bad precedent, and ordered the elections to go forward. DeWine then did something extraordinary: Along with the secretary of state and public health commissioner, he barred the elections as a public health emergency.

The other three states went forward — and many other states plan to in the coming weeks. The question of whether it’s safe as a public health matter to vote in those elections comes down to a handful of questions:

  1. Are you an “older person” (which the CDC left undefined), or do you have “an underlying health condition”?
  2. In the next two weeks, will you be in contact with an older person or a person with an underlying health condition? (This includes poll workers.)
  3. In the next two weeks, will you be in contact with any person who themselves might be in contact with an older person or a person with an underlying health condition?
  4. In the next two weeks, will you be in contact with any person who themselves might be in contact with any person who themselves might be in contact with an older person?

If the answer to any of those is yes, it’s too risky. Given that nearly 100 percent of people would answer yes to one of those questions — especially since many poll workers are older — holding an in-person election in the midst of a pandemic plainly disenfranchises anybody concerned about responsibly safeguarding public health.

The pandemic is forcing competing values to collide. It’s painful, as an American, to suggest that an election ought to be postponed or that a voter ought not to vote. It also cuts against our cherished rule of law to have a governor simply override the judiciary, citing an emergency. The way that DeWine made the decision is hostile to our bedrock of democratic values — and yet it was the right decision. Therein lies the true threat to democracy. If we want to emerge from this crisis with our democracy intact, people with actual power — limited as it may be, as in the case of DNC chair Tom Perez, for instance — need to use it and lead. Instead, the DNC sent out a memo threatening to penalize states and warning that states that wish to postpone elections can happen no later than June 9. (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo estimated Tuesday the peak in New York City will come in 45 days, meaning the pandemic will still be operative June 9.)

The judge who rejected DeWine’s request to postpone the election was no doubt influenced by the fact that no one with leverage over the course of the primary — neither Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, nor Perez — had called for the postponement, and, indeed, more than 100 progressive groups were calling on the state to push forward with its election. The groups expressed concern that “sudden changes to election times, locations, and more have been proven to create barriers to, and in some instances the denial of, citizens’ right to vote.”

What if an ill-advised election goes forward, and it results in a spike in infections? The public will remember that it was an election that ballooned the crisis.

There are legitimate reasons to be wary of a postponement, but again, refer to the CDC guidelines. If older people are advised to “stay home and away from other people,” in what possible scenario can an election go on that doesn’t either put those people at heightened risk or disenfranchise them?  (The Center for Popular Democracy, whose affiliate CPD Action endorsed Sanders, initially signed on to the letter encouraging the in-person elections to go forward, but told The Intercept that it has since withdrawn its name.)

Voting rights groups, in arguing on behalf of the letter privately with other progressive groups, warned that if Democrats postponed a primary, it would give Donald Trump a precedent to use to postpone the general election, according to sources involved in those conversations. Three years into the Trump administration, it is remarkable that Democrats still believe that their behavior will have any effect on Trump’s. And what if an ill-advised election goes forward, and it results in a spike in infections? The public will remember that it was an election that ballooned the crisis. In such a scenario, it will be holding the election, not postponing it, that undermines faith in elections and gives Trump a future argument to deploy. The move is all the more remarkable given the opportunity at hand for Democrats to achieve a long-running goal: the advent of universal vote-by-mail elections.

The Ohio postponement should have been done by popular demand. Instead, it was done in an authoritarian fashion. Maybe it’s apocryphal, but when Ben Franklin stepped out of the constitutional convention and was asked what the founders had created, he said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” If your position is that an election must be held, even knowing that it will lead to many people dying needlessly, because it’s on the calendar and that’s the process, then don’t be surprised when people demand the process be thrown out. If we behave irresponsibly with our democracy, an authoritarian will be happy to ride in and take over, promising to do it smoothly. A republic, if you can keep it.

Instead, intraparty rivalries appear to be dominating the decision-making process. Two of the three states that pushed ahead are governed by Republicans — Arizona and Florida — while Illinois is governed by Democrat J.B. Pritzker. On the eve of the Illinois primary, Pritzker endorsed Biden while refusing to postpone the vote.

Jim Allen, the Chicago city election board spokesperson, said that the city board urged the governor’s office during a March 11 phone call to end in-person voting and switch to mail. A Pritzker spokesperson said the claim was a “lie,” adding that the governor had offered to send the National Guard to help man the polls, but the offer was rejected.

Meanwhile, early reports from Illinois, Florida, and Arizona on Tuesday indicated that the confusion sown by the pandemic went beyond a failure of simple hygiene.

In Illinois’s 33rd Precinct, Rebecca Gross, a 16-year-old volunteering in her first election, said her polling location had to turn away every single voter registered in its precinct because it never got any voting supplies.

“That includes like, ballots, ballot counters, voting machines, the individual desks, the dividers for privacy. Really just everything, we have zero equipment to use here,” she said. “So every single voter who was supposed to vote in our precinct, we have had to turn away.” By early afternoon, volunteers started redirecting voters to a nearby polling location, which had at least a two-hour wait. They eventually directed voters to a third alternative location.

In Florida, amid reports that hundreds of voters in the state did not show up to polls, Dustin Chase, spokesperson for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, confirmed that nearly 300 poll workers hadn’t shown up in his county. He added that the county trained some 150 poll workers in recent days, the majority just yesterday, in an effort to prepare. “We have not had any problems thus far at a polling location,” he said, noting that they hadn’t yet hit their busiest time — 5 p.m. — and still had several hours of voting left.

The contrast between how Biden and Sanders handled the situation was itself stark. The Sanders campaign shuttered its traditional get-out-the-vote operation, and Sanders on Sunday questioned whether the elections should go forward in person at all. In an interview after the presidential debate on, Sanders said it doesn’t “make a lot of sense” to hold the primaries on Tuesday considering the pandemic. “I would hope that governors listen to the public health experts and what they are saying is … we don’t want gatherings of more than 50 people,” Sanders said.

On Tuesday, the campaign released a statement saying, “We believe going to the polls amid the coronavirus outbreak is a personal decision and we respect whichever choice they make,” adding that it was also distributing CDC guidelines.

Sanders reiterated that statement on Twitter on Tuesday, though even it falls short. The CDC guidelines Sanders shared are clear that only one “personal decision” — an odd phrase to use in a public health emergency — complies with the CDC guidelines, and that is not to vote in person. Sanders appeared to be walking people toward that decision without saying it outright — leading from behind, so to speak.

Meanwhile, Biden continued pushing supporters to the polls. “State election officials are working closely with public health officials to hold safe elections. If you are feeling healthy, not showing symptoms, and not at risk of being exposed to COVID-19: please vote on Tuesday,” Biden posted on Twitter.

Public health officials have said repeatedly that asymptomatic carriers of the virus can be contagious, making Biden’s claim unscientific and dangerous. The notion that there is anybody who is “not at risk of being exposed” is also scientifically incoherent.

Speaking on CNN on Sunday, Biden adviser Symone Sanders pushed back against Bernie Sanders’s claim that voting on Tuesday might be risky to public health. “The CDC and folks have said it’s safe out there for Tuesday, so I don’t know what Senator Sanders was talking about,” she lied.

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