Coronavirus, court suit, and a potentially chaotic primary election in FL on Tuesday

Voters casting ballots. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Amid concern and fear about the coronavirus pandemic, voters head to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots in the Florida presidential primary – the Democratic and Republican contests with big-ticket delegate prizes that will help determine the nominees for president.

But it’s likely that some voters will stay home, and others could be disenfranchised as long lines and confusion at the polls play out during Florida’s public health emergency, according to civil rights organizations.

Already, poll workers in Florida have been quitting their jobs, according to news reports, causing elections supervisors to rearrange dozens of voting precincts.

And a federal lawsuit filed Monday claims that Gov. Ron DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee and the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission refused to make reasonable voting accommodations in the primary election for Floridians impacted by COVID-19.

Broward and Miami-Dade counties have the largest number of infections – COVID-19 is the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus – as well as the highest number of active registered voters, state elections data show.

Those counties, and others, could potentially impact voter turnout.

Elsewhere, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine pushed to move Tuesday’s primary to June, concerned that a number of coronavirus challenges could affect voter turnout, according to the Ohio Capital Journal, a sister paper to the Florida Phoenix.  A judge axed that plan.

But after 10 p.m. Monday, “DeWine said conducting an election Tuesday would force poll workers to face ‘unacceptable’ health risks of contracting COVID-19. Thus, he would close the polls, seemingly flouting Monday’s legal action,” the Capital Journal wrote.

More on the new Florida lawsuit

Meanwhile, the Florida lawsuit filed by a coalition of civil rights groups said the pandemic threatens to disrupt the primary election Tuesday “and cause large-scale voter disenfranchisement falling hardest on communities of color and other historically vulnerable populations.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida, in the Gainesville division, said:

“Universities have sent students home, people are remaining in quarantine, poll workers are dropping out, and Supervisors of Elections have closed or moved 112 polling places in 22 counties, in many cases less than a week before the election.

The predictable result is the denial of the vote to untold numbers of Floridians who had planned to vote in person on Election Day—including those who are elderly or have health conditions and cannot get to the polls without tremendous risk, university students who are no longer present in their county of registration because their dorms have closed, and those who venture out but encounter long lines and confusion at the polls.

And yet the State of Florida…has failed to take reasonable emergency measures necessary for voter participation in the face of this crisis.”

Florida is forging ahead on the primary election

State officials say Florida is going ahead with Tuesday’s primary election, a precursor to the general election that will decide who will be president come January 2021.

Florida is a key state in the presidential process. It has a large voting population – 13.6 million as of Jan. 31– and it’s a swing state that has swayed presidential elections in the past, such as the Bush v. Gore recount in 2000 that led George W. Bush to the White House.

Nowadays in Florida, about 4.8-million voters are registered as Republican; a little over 5 million as Democrats; and about 150,000 from minor parties. Another 3.6-million registered voters have no party affiliation.

“Florida is proceeding with tomorrow’s scheduled election,” Secretary of State Laurel Lee said Monday at a news conference at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

Almost two million voters have already cast ballots by early voting or by mail, Lee said.

She acknowledged concerns about sanitation at polls but said elections supervisors have been following state and federal public health guidelines on safe practices.

“We’re dealing with this in a thoughtful way, but we’re not going to panic,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis, who spoke at the operations center.

“The fact of the matter is that these things can be done in ways where you’re not going to have large crowds because it’s one vote. For most counties, its literally one oval that you’re going to do,” DeSantis said.

He added: “I know the folks who are working the elections are working really hard to protect folks. We’ve limited access to the assisted living facilities in some of the areas where we may have vulnerable folks.

“At the same time, when you go in and cancel that, I mean, the signal that that sends is somehow, you know, we’re paralyzed. And I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’re taking prudent steps.”

Beyond the virus and court suit, what’s the primary all about?

The big story in the Florida presidential primary is about two Democratic Party contenders.

After several presidential candidates dropped out, the two main contenders became former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Biden, who served as vice president to Barack Obama, is more of a centrist Democrat while Sanders has pushed for a far more liberal agenda, including programs such as Medicare for All.

Biden is ahead in the delegate counts in the primaries and caucuses, and numerous polls have shown that he is expected to win by a large margin in Florida.

Political consultants agreed that it would be surprising if Biden didn’t win big in Florida.

So in terms of tallying votes and racking up delegates, “It will be a very quick and boring night for anybody looking at Florida,” said state political consultant Kevin Cate, who worked on the 2008 Obama campaign.

Political strategist Steve Schale, who directed the Obama-Biden campaign in Florida in 2008, said, “I would say Joe Biden will be the overwhelming favorite” in the Florida primary and will likely amass a delegate lead that will “pretty much be mathematically impossible to overcome.”

If that becomes the reality, the question will be whether Bernie Sanders will drop out, paving the way for Biden to be the Democratic nominee.

The answer could be elusive.

Longtime GOP consultant Mac Stipanovich, who has switched parties and is currently a Democrat, said he isn’t sure what Sanders will do.

“I really don’t know,” Stipanovich said. “He is so hard-headed. He is so full of himself. He is so persuaded that he is the avatar of a movement; the essence of the future, that his ego and the insatiable anger of his core supporters will probably not allow him to withdraw.”