By CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY and JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Elections officials in the four states holding presidential primaries next week say they have no plans to postpone voting amid widespread disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, they are taking extraordinary steps to ensure that voters can cast ballots and keep polling places clean.
They have been scrambling to recruit replacements for poll workers who are dropping out over fears of contracting the virus, providing Q-tip swabs for voters to use on touchscreen machines and extending absentee voting deadlines. Only one state, Louisiana, was poised to postpone its primary, from April to June.
“Americans have participated in elections during challenging times in the past, and based on the best information we have from public health officials, we are confident that voters in our states can safely and securely cast their ballots in this election,” top election officials from Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio said in a joint statement Friday.
They encouraged poll workers who are healthy to show up.
In Texas, where the virus had spread to every major city by Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration but said it would have no affect on the state’s May primary runoff elections that will decide key congressional races. Georgia is proceeding with plans for its March 24 primary, and early voting there continues.
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
In Ohio, which is under a statewide emergency because of the virus, a plea from the state’s elections chief earlier in the week prompted more than 1,200 people to sign up for poll worker duty across the state after election boards reported some workers were dropping out amid virus fears.
One state official, Auditor Keith Faber, urged his entire staff employees to take a paid leave day to help out.
In Summit County, the elections board ordered more than 118,000 Q-tips to be used to tap selections on voting touchscreens as a way of reducing the risk of infection. Throughout Ohio, more than 140 polling places inside nursing homes and residential living facilities have been relocated to protect elderly voters susceptible to the virus.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, remains concerned about holding the primaries amid the great uncertainty caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
“In Ohio, I expect a lot of confusion next week,” she said, noting the shrinking number of days to get the word out about new polling locations.
Election offices often can’t reach voters through emails or texts, she said, and media such as newspapers have limited reach. She said that it could be even worse in places that decide even later to move voting locations.