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 crowds.
With 219 delegates at stake, Florida is a key showdown between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, and will be crucial for President Donald Trump’s chances for reelection.
At least one more, in Broward County, opened late. No significant problems for voters were immediately reported elsewhere. Election Day turnout appeared to be light across the state, in part because nearly 2 million Floridians already voted early or by mail.
A coalition of progressive groups cited voting disruptions in an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to force the state to extend mail-in balloting into next week. A federal judge rejected the request.
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 the virus.
They were armed with masks, but when they saw 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 it was too dangerous for him to vote, because he has multiple sclerosis and his voting station is in a senior center.
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, saying the election could be run safely. Also voting on Tuesday were Illinois and Arizona; Ohio’s was rescheduled at the last minute for June 2.
“We’re not going to panic,” DeSantis said Monday. “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 in the days leading up to the vote and the fear voters will have if they believe they can only vote in person at this point. Also, college students have been suddenly sent home and cannot vote at their registered sites on or near campus, they said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee denied the request, noting that early and mail-in voting already was well underway. “The national healthcare emergency is not a basis to cancel an election,” he wrote.
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 offered the biggest delegate prize of the day’s primaries, and a potential knockout blow to 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 in a state considered crucial for Trump’s reelection campaign.
Sanders, a self-avowed democratic socialist, is banking on a coalition of young and working-class voters energized by his transformative vision for America.
Sanders has done well with Latino voters in some other states, but many of them in Florida are exiles from authoritarian socialists regimes who are wary of politicians who lean too far to the left. His praise for the literacy campaign of the late Fidel Castro was widely seen as a flub.
“Bernie already lost Florida the minute he started talking about Castro,” said Michael Sahdev, 28, an episcopal priest in Coral Gables, who voted Tuesday for Biden. Sahdev said he was inspired by the elderly workers in gloves who were manning the polling station at a local library.
“We are desperate for some stability, we are desperate for true morality and someone who can bring us together as a nation,” Sahdev said. “And Trump is not doing that.”