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Election officials: Tuesday primaries on despite coronavirus fears

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — 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 polling places are clean.

They have been scrambling to recruit replacements for poll workers dropping out over fears of contracting the virus, providing cotton swabs for voters to use on touchscreen machines and extending absentee voting deadlines. Only one state, Louisiana, announced plans 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 that also encouraged healthy poll workers to show up.

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.

Election officials routinely prepare for natural disasters and other disruptions, but the coronavirus outbreak poses a unique challenge as some areas of the country urge members of the public to work from home and avoid crowds. On Friday, President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency.

Election Day voting in the U.S. largely relies on an army of poll workers who staff schools, community centers and government buildings open for the public to cast ballots in person. Because many poll workers are older, they may be especially concerned about the virus. School closures and safety concerns at senior living communities have thrown some polling places into question.

Nearly 50 of the roughly 600 paid volunteers have withdrawn in Volusia County, Florida. Hundreds of poll workers and election judges in Illinois have canceled their assignments, leaving election officials, particularly in Chicago, scrambling.

In Georgia, where the average age for poll workers is 70 years old, about 300 poll workers have said they would no longer be available to work in the March 24 primary. Early voting for Georgia's upcoming primary continued Friday, as state election officials weighed their options, including whether to postpone.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration but said it would not affect the state's May primary runoff elections that will decide congressional races. Wisconsin also said it planned to proceed with its April 7 primary.

But Louisiana officials decided the risk was too great. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said he planned to sign an executive order delaying the April 4 primary until June 20, describing the step as “necessary to protect the health and safety of the people of Louisiana."

Some states might be able to send all voters ballots they can fill out and mail back, but that will largely depend on particular circumstances. For some, it may not be logistically possible.

A top election official in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes the Phoenix area and 60% of the state’s registered voters, said he intended to mail ballots to everyone who didn’t already get one so they can be filled out at home and dropped at a polling place before polls close Tuesday.

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Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, said he acted after “a series of cancellations by polling place locations and election worker staff.” He acknowledged there’s no explicit legal authority for his move, but said it’s also not strictly illegal.

“Considering this unprecedented emergency situation, we need to act to both enfranchise the voters and protect public health,” Fontes said.

But the state’s top election official, Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, said Fontes acted illegally and she pressed his mail vendor not to put the ballots in the mail. She said she’s been assured the ballots were prepared but had not yet been mailed.

In Wyoming, state Democrats have canceled the in-person portion of their upcoming caucuses and will instead rely on ballots that were already mailed to all registered party members.

“Our priority is ensuring that people are healthy and safe,” Wyoming Democratic Party Chair Joe M. Barbuto said in a statement Thursday. “Holding public events right now would put that in jeopardy, so this is the responsible course of action.”

Officials in Maryland and New York have said they’re considering mailing primary ballots to all registered voters.

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 to take a paid leave day to help out.

In Broward County, Florida, election officials were stocking its 421 polling locations with extra supplies including 4,000 rolls of paper towels, gloves and more than 400 bars of soap.

“We’ve purchased gallons of rubbing alcohol and are having them transferred to spray bottles," spokesperson Steve Vancore said. “We've ordered cases upon case of Clorox wipes so polls workers can frequently wipe down the equipment and wipe down the voting booths."

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Cassidy reported from Atlanta.

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Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix; Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Frank Bajak in Boston; Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland; John O'Connor in Springfield, Illinois; Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey; and Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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