In the span of a single week, touchscreens have shifted from being the de facto interface for tipping your barista, checking in at the airport, and withdrawing cash from an ATM to becoming a feared vector for the novel coronavirus and the deadly disease it causes.
On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of Arizona voters participating in the state’s Democratic primary will begin the process of casting their ballots by using one.
The perceived risk of contracting—or spreading—the coronavirus via the touchscreens used for checking voters in was just one of a legion of concerns that Arizona’s election officials were scrambling to address in the hours before in-person voting began at 6 a.m. local time. The pandemic has thrown the presidential campaign into turmoil and other states have moved to postpone their primaries until the crisis has passed. Wyoming, for example, has converted its in-person caucus to an all mail-in contest, while Louisiana and Georgia postponed their primaries.
At press time, Ohio, slated to vote March 17, appeared to be mired in a court battle to move the primary to June just hours before the polls opened.
Late Monday night, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) wrote on Twitter that an official at the Ohio Department of Health “will order the polls closed as a health emergency.”
As one of the most popular retirement destinations in the country, Arizona stands as an area of particular concern to public health advocates who fear that the state’s elderly population, low testing rates and history of attempted voter suppression could mean a potential worst-case scenario for holding elections during the coronavirus pandemic.
Fears of an election-driven spike in coronavirus cases sparked a new primary day crisis in recent days. On Friday, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors announced that 80 polling locations—more than a third of all locations in a county with a population of more than 4.3 million people—had been cut after poll workers and polling location hosts, including nursing homes and schools, pulled out due to concerns about spreading the virus.
Maricopa County Director of Elections Scott Jarrett went viral when he announced “I’m sorry, I can’t do this” in the middle of a press conference about protecting voters from exposure to the novel coronavirus, a moment that some feared presaged the kind of election day meltdown that led to hours-long lines to vote in Maricopa County in the 2016 primaries.
Local elected and Democratic Party officials told The Daily Beast that they are doing what they can to mitigate the effects that the novel coronavirus may have on voters during Tuesday’s primary—even as other states have moved to postpone their primaries hours before polls were to open.
“It might be a little more difficult at times, but we are definitely going to try to accommodate anyone who wants to vote,” said Adrian Fontes, county recorder for Maricopa County, the state’s most populous. County recorders in Arizona are tasked with maintaining the state’s public records, as well as voter registration and early voting. “It has been a significant challenge to make those changes on such short notice, but our staff has been working really hard to coordinate.”
The last-minute changes, Fontes said, include converting all 151 remaining precincts in Maricopa County into “voting centers,” where any voter can cast a ballot or drop off a previously requested mail-in ballot no matter the location of their normally assigned polling place.
“Because we had to reduce the number of polling places, you don’t have to go to the one assigned voting place,” Fontes said. “All 151 locations are vote centers, and anyone can cast a ballot at any one of those locations.”
Among other coronavirus-minded changes: mandated cleanings of polling places at least every half hour, and tasking line minders with enforcing healthy social distancing as Arizonans wait to vote.
“The election day plan specifically calls for a line management clerk because of the 2016 problems,” Fontes said. “We want to make sure to have someone who can speak directly with the voters in line—now they will have healthy distance instructions as well.”
Arizona Democrats are hoping that at least some of the pressure will be taken off day-of voting centers by the expansion of mail-in ballots across the state.
“The early ballot drop-off deadline has been extended through today for people to take advantage of and polling locations will have extra soap on hand and machines will be regularly sanitized,” said Matt Grodsky, spokesperson for the state Democratic Party, who noted that roughly 375,000 ballots had been received via mail as of last Friday, on pace to surpass the primary vote total before polling locations even open at 6 a.m. on Tuesday. A Monmouth University survey found that half of likely Arizona primary voters had already cast their ballots by mail.
But efforts by some officials, including Fontes, to offer mail-in ballots to all voters regardless of whether they had requested them—an attempt, he said, to offer Arizona voters curbside voting to limit physical proximity—were quashed by the Arizona Superior Court
In a state where nearly 18 percent of the population is older than 65, according to U.S. Census data, there are acute concerns about asking voters to choose between their right to vote and potential exposure to a deadly virus.
Some campaign officials have voiced those concerns in recent days. During a digital “fireside chat” on Saturday, Sen Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir told viewers that it was still an open question of whether states would hold the primaries at all—urging “healthy” voters to go to the polls.
The next night, Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’ national press secretary, tweeted that comments by former Vice President Joe Biden’s communications director Symone Sanders asserting that it was safe to vote on Tuesday were “wrong.”
“The only guidance we have so far is that we should not gather in groups of 50 people or more. I’m sure it’s an honest mistake, but this is a public health crisis,” Gray continued.
Later that evening, the co-chair of Sanders’s Arizona campaign in Arizona called on the state election to postpone the primary.
“The CDC announced that gatherings of 50 or more should be canceled for the next eight weeks,” tweeted Brianna Westbrook, the vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party. “There will be more than 50 people at polling locations on Tuesday. It’s time to push back the election a few weeks until it’s safe.”
The state party said that Westbrook’s comments were “not in line with the conclusions reached by the Arizona Democratic Party,” and called for the election to proceed as planned.
“The public should exercise caution but understand that polling centers have been properly equipped with the necessary items to ensure public safety,” the Arizona Democratic Party said in a statement.
Asked about the particular risk that the virus poses to elderly populations in the state—for example, the snowbird mecca Sun City—Fontes said that the recorder’s office is trying to distribute resources equally, regardless of the potential demographics of certain voting centers.
“It’s not just older folks who are susceptible—everyone can be a potential carrier,” Fontes said. “We’re sufficiently focused on all areas. We all have to be particularly careful during these times.”