COVID-19 cuts into Florida’s presidential primary turnout; some poll workers fail to show

Polling places in Leon County ahead of the 2020 primaries. Credit: Issac Morgan

Voting in Florida’s presidential preference primary on Tuesday started off with sparse crowds and few polling workers at precincts around the state amid fears stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Broward County, with more than 1 million active registered voters and the most COVID-19 cases in the state, in-person voting was definitely slim. That very morning, the Florida Department of Health reported a death in an assisted living facility within the county.

Steve Vancore, a spokesman for the Broward County Supervisor of Elections, reported that “turnout is relatively light.” Of 421 polling locations in Broward, “419 were up and fully operational right around 7 a.m. Three were delayed,” he said.

Nearly 900,000 Republicans and more than 1 million Democrats have already voted early or through vote by mail ballots received by state elections officials.

Voting Tuesday began at 7 a.m. and will last until 7 p.m. The only Democrats still actively campaigning were former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. President Donald Trump was expected to win easily among a handful of challengers in the GOP primary.

There were no-shows among polling workers who’d been expected to assist voters.

“We had 16 precincts asking to be relocated” because of their proximity to senior living facilities, Vancore added. Health officials consider seniors most vulnerable to infection with the new coronavirus linked to the respiratory ailment.

“Some voters were inconvenienced,” Vancore said, but officials had prepared for hiccups. “We had a plan A, plan B, and Plan C.”

In Leon County, at a precinct on the campus of Florida A&M University, poll workers engaged in conversation as they waited for voters to show up. Plenty of hand sanitizer was available throughout the building. A janitorial worker wearing a face mask wiped down tables and cleaned other areas with disinfectant.

At around 9 a.m. at a voting location near Tallahassee’s Lake Ella, fewer than five people, including a poll worker at the front door, were present.

Voters also were sparse at around 10 a.m. at the Jack McLean Community Center on Tallahassee’s south side. Around 10 voters were in evidence. “There’s no telling if there will be a line later on,” a polling worker said.

Around noon at the Sue Herndon McCollum Community Center in Lafayette Park in Tallahassee, voters were scarce and poll workers were wearing light blue hospital-type gloves.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Gainesville rejected a lawsuit filed by a coalition of civil rights organizations Monday accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee of refusing to make reasonable voting accommodations for Floridians affected by COVID-19.

“We are disappointed that the court denied our motion for a temporary restraining order seeking to expand vote-by-mail opportunities in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, but the case is not over,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project, one of the plaintiffs, in an email to the Florida Phoenix.

The lawsuit demanded Florida adjust its vote-by-mail process by extending the deadline for voters to request a mail-in ballot to March 27; allow voters to receive ballots via email and fax; allow third parties to collect ballots from voters using vote-by-mail; and allow voters to submit ballots through fax.

“For today, we urge voters who are unable or unwilling to go to the polls to request an emergency vote-by-mail ballot from their county supervisor of elections,” Dianis said.