Arizona's Primary Will Go on, With Officials Saying COVID-19 Risk Is Manageable

Arizona Democrats will head to the polls on Tuesday for the presidential preference election, despite public health officials' calls for social distancing and no more mass gatherings.
Arizona is among four states that will proceed with its Democratic primaries on Tuesday, as public health officials call for social distancing and an end to mass gatherings during the new coronavirus pandemic.

Officials say that there will not be a better time to hold elections, and they maintain that they can do it safely. But they have stopped short of urging people to go out and vote.

The risks of voting on Tuesday depend on several factors, including who else goes, where and how one votes, and how well-sanitized polling stations are.

“We have no guarantee that there will be a safer time to hold this election in the near future,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said Monday afternoon during a press conference with other state leaders, including Governor Doug Ducey. "The longer we wait, the more difficult and dangerous this will become."

She urged voters to "make a decision that is right for you."

Characterizing voting as different from other gatherings, like concerts or sporting events, Hobbs and three other secretaries of state, from Florida, Illinois, and Ohio, said in a joint statement on Friday that voting could be done safely, in part because "polling locations see people from a nearby community coming into and out of the building for a short duration."

Some counties in Arizona, where officials say they'll sterilize voting machines every 30 minutes, have also given some voters options that allow them to keep their distance from other people, including voting early and dropping off vote-by-mail ballots at certain locations.

Maricopa County has cut its polling centers substantially, from 229 to 151, and voters can drop off ballots at any of those locations. Some counties offered emergency voting on Monday to allow people to avoid Election Day crowds.

Megan Gilbertson, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Elections Department, said the county was "working to balance equal access to the polls, while prioritizing the health and safety of the public."

"Due to widespread shortages of cleaning supplies, our plan to reduce polling locations provides poll workers more cleaning supplies and ability to meet U.S. Centers for Disease Control surface cleaning directives," she added.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as you've likely heard by now, the most important thing one can do is consistently, carefully clean one's hands. Staying at least six feet away from other people is important, too.

"Feasibility of strategies will depend on the space available in the polling station and the number of voters who arrive at one time," the CDC says.

Will Humble, a former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said he thought that for people to head to the polls Tuesday would be "fine," on several conditions, namely that if people weren't feeling well, they should stay home.

"If you're coughing and don't feel well, skip it," he said. Lines should be spaced out, "wash your hands before and after" voting, and "take cautions to protect yourself and others," he said.

Voting should be relatively quick, Humble said, pointing out that this is the Democratic presidential primary, not a general election, and voters can pick more or less between two candidates: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

Humble said he planned on voting, washing his hands before and after, and keeping an eye out for "coughers."

Polling locations have been given guidance from health officials and voting machine manufacturers on how best to sanitize machines and wash hands, Hobbs and top election officials from other states said.

Guidance from the CDC calls on election officials to encourage mail-in ballots, drive-up voting, and other methods that reduce crowds and lines. It also tells polling workers to stay home if they think they're sick.

Last week, a decision by Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes last week to mail ballots to voters who weren't on the early voting list, so that they could avoid in-person voting on Tuesday, failed after Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed for an emergency order, and a Superior Court judge stopped Fontes.

Hobbs said Fontes did not have the authority to make such a decision.