As coronavirus epidemic grows, will voters be discouraged from going to the polls?

Voting booths are set up on the campus of University of South Florida as workers prepare to open the doors to early voters on October 22, 2018 in Tampa. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

With the presidential primary election a week away and the deadly coronavirus expanding in Florida, elections officials are telling residents they can vote by mail rather than head to the polls.

For those who want to vote at polling places, elections supervisors are taking precautions: Voting locations are being scrubbed down and stocked up with cleaning supplies to prevent the spread of the China-born illness that has multiplied globally and domestically.

Florida has already reported two deaths and a total of 19 positive cases of the respiratory disease in eight counties, including counties with large voting populations like Broward and Hillsborough.

The most recent case emerged Monday evening in Volusia — the second coronavirus case in that county.

At issue is whether the continued threat of the coronavirus will discourage Florida voters from going to the polls to cast their ballots, potentially impacting voter turnout.

“I have not heard of any specific concerns of voters being worried about voting due to the coronavirus,” said Santa Rosa County elections supervisor Tappie A. Villane.

In her county, a 71-year-old man recently died from the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

“We have taken the same steps for our four early voting sites, which is currently underway,” said Villane.  “We will be sending hand sanitizer, hand wipes and Lysol spray to each polling site on March 17.”

That’s the day of the 2020 Presidential Preference Primary Election in Florida, when voters select a candidate who could become a political party’s nominee, eventually competing for the presidency in the general election in November.

The top contenders in the Democratic Party primary are former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. President Trump is the main contender in the Republican Party primary.

Elections data show Broward County has the second-highest voting population in Florida, more than a million active registered voters.  Broward has the highest number of coronavirus cases – 3 – of all counties.

Voters are encouraged to vote by mail if they are concerned about going to the polls on March 17, said Steven Vancore, a Broward County Supervisor of Elections representative.

“They can go to our downtown office and pick up a vote by mail ballot,” Vancore said in a phone call with the Florida Phoenix.

Ballots can then be returned to the downtown office or the 24-hour drop box at the Voting Equipment Center in Lauderhill, but must be received by the end of the business day, Vancore said.

Voters are advised that vote-by-mail ballots, by law, must be received (not postmarked) by the Broward County elections office by March 17 in order to be counted, according to a press release from the Broward County Supervisor of Elections.

In Tallahassee on Monday, college students in the state capital rallied at Florida A&M University and Florida State University, led by Andrew Gillum of Forward Florida, an organization dedicated to increasing voter registration.

The former Tallahassee mayor and 2018 Florida gubernatorial candidate marched with students at Florida State University to the early voting location near downtown. A representative from Forward Florida said “voter turnout is looking good” during early voting, despite concerns about the coronavirus epidemic.

“The Florida College Democrats believe that there are plenty of ways to be a part of the democratic process while being conscious of the current pandemic we’re facing,” Gabriella Miernik, communications director of the Florida College Democrats, said in an email to the Florida Phoenix.
Miernik continued: “We want to stress to voters that they can still vote by mail and use early voting as an option to avoid the crowds that will turn out on March 17th. We also want to emphasize on making sure people are keeping their hands clean, are coughing and sneezing into their arms and other using other precautions if voting in person.
Across Florida, we have been organizing, not just on college campuses, but in our community to make sure we have been registering and getting people to vote in record numbers this year. While we know the coronavirus is something on everyone’s mind, we’re very hopeful that voters will still turnout on March 17.”

Chris Moore, deputy supervisor of elections in Leon County — home to Tallahassee — said in a written statement that polling sites have established a daily cleaning schedule with cleaning supplies made available to workers. His office also has been following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines specifically designed for polling sites nationwide.

CDC features a list of recommendations on cleaning and disinfection of polling location areas on its website called: ”Recommended Precautions for Preventing Spread of COVID-19 in Election Polling Locations, including Cleaning and Disinfection.”

Some of those guidelines include:

/Practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, including tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks and other areas;

/Ensure bathrooms at the polling stations are supplied adequately with soap, water, and drying materials so visitors and staff can wash their hands;

/Provide an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

“We have a daily cleaning schedule for our Early Voting sites and are making available appropriate hand sanitizer, wipes and supplies to our voters, as well as our election workers,” Moore, of Leon County said.

“At this time, we are preparing internally for any next steps that may be required in case of an escalation in requirements from health care officials. We are promoting the official experts as trusted information to voters and letting Leon County take the lead on public alerts.”