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Reports from states holding 2020 Democratic primaries amid pandemic

Voters cast primary ballots Tuesday in the midst of a global pandemic. Despite concerns over crowded polling stations, Arizona, Florida and Illinois pressed on with their elections, while Ohio delayed its own. Stephanie Sy reports from Phoenix and Judy Woodruff gets updates from WTTW’s Paris Schutz outside Chicago, Karen Kasler of Ohio Public Radio and TV and David Smiley of the Miami Herald.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a primary election day never seen before in modern life, as voters cast their ballots in the middle of a global pandemic.

    Despite concerns of overcrowded polling stations, at a time of social distancing, and a postponement in Ohio, three other states pressed on with voting, Florida, Illinois and Arizona.

    And that's where we begin tonight, in Phoenix.

    And that's where we find Stephanie Sy.

    So, how has the coronavirus affected voters and their turning out at the polls where you are?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Well, good evening, Judy.

    We're at the Central Phoenix Library, where we have seen a steady trickle of people dropping off their ballots. This is one of more than 150 voting centers in Maricopa County. And that's where the majority of registered Democrats and Arizonans live.

    Why do we call them voting centers now? Because 80 polling sites had to be closed under emergency protocols that were activated here in the wake of coronavirus. The voting centers allow anyone to drop off one of these green ballots or to vote in person, irregardless of their zip code.

    So they did do things to address this election. Late yesterday, Judy, we saw a real show of unity among state officials here. The Republican governor and the Democratic secretary of state gave a joint presser and said they would go ahead with this presidential preference election.

    It is a closed primary, only for registered Democrats, but the secretary of state explained the rationale, saying she felt that it would only get more dangerous if they delayed this contest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Stephanie, what can you tell us? You started out by talking about a steady trickle. What can you tell us about turnout?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Well, Judy, that really is the big headline in Arizona today.

    Earlier today, the Arizona Democratic Party released numbers for early ballots, and this is what they found. There have been more early ballots counted than the entire vote count from 2016. Now, that may be, you say, because state officials encouraged people to vote early.

    But here's the other thing. I just got off the phone with the recorder's office here in Maricopa County; 27,000 people had voted in person or dropped off ballots today in Maricopa County. And, Judy, that is on par with the in-person numbers we saw in 2016.

    There are still 3.5 hours before polls close here, and if the trend lines continue, Judy, this could be the biggest turnout ever for a presidential preference election here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So interesting, given everything that's going on.

    Stephanie Sy reporting for us from Maricopa County, as you heard, thank you, Stephanie.

    And now we turn to the state of Illinois, where 155 delegates are at stake.

    Paris Schutz of WTTW joins us from outside the Chicago Board of Elections headquarters.

    So, Paris, I'm going to ask you the same question I started with Stephanie. How is the virus, the coronavirus, affecting people and their willingness to turn out and how these elections were held?

  • Paris Schutz:

    Judy, I'm going to give you the same answer that you just got. It's caused a lot of confusion. It caused a lot of acrimony, especially early in the morning, as polling places changed at the last minute.

    Election judges dropped out by the hundreds, for fear of being in exposure to coronavirus. It caused election authorities in Chicago to reveal that they had urged Governor Pritzker, a Democratic governor here, to postpone's today's election. They said the situation was untenable.

    Pritzker said, not going to do that, the election is going to go on. And he is without — it's not within his legal authority to do so, he said. So turnout was really low in the morning. There has been a steady trickle, just like Arizona. In Chicago, we're told it will end the day at around 35 percent, not abnormally low for a turnout in a primary election, but certainly much lower than officials here anticipated.

    The fascinating numbers are the demographic breakdown. Older voters, the ones most at risk with coronavirus, have turned out in huge numbers. They have lapped the field in relation to younger voters, especially voters 18 to 24. The turnout there has been anemic. Those are the voters that Bernie Sanders had counted on coming out in big numbers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Older voters reliable, usually.

    So we finally are mentioning the candidates, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Biden ahead in the polls in Illinois. What are you sensing from talking to voters?

  • Paris Schutz:

    Well, voters say — I asked them a lot about how concerned they were about coming out in this pandemic.

    And they said that they were concerned, but they were going to keep a social distance and the civic duty to vote outweighed their medical concerns.

    In terms of the Biden camp, they're very confident in the numbers, especially with the older turnout. They are also confident in the fact that, in the state of Illinois, there will be about one million voters who voted early or voted by mail. They believe most of those are their voters, older voters.

    In terms of Sanders, they were concerned with the closure of schools and colleges and universities. A lot of their base is on college campuses, so with students not on campus and scattered around at home, they were worried that those students wouldn't turn out.

    Both campaigns — the Biden campaign said after today they believe the race is, in effect, over, if the final tally here is consistent with what the polling has been. Sanders' campaign acknowledged it's an uphill fight, and they want to come together and unify at some point, although they're not giving it up just yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Paris Schutz reporting for us from the very latest on the Chicago polling place, Paris, thank you very much.

    And now on to Ohio, where the governor announced late last night, literally at the 11th hour, that there would be no voting.

    Karen Kasler, you are there for us reporting on what's happened.

    Karen, it was quite a tug-of-war between Governor DeWine and the judge, and the governor finally said, I'm shutting this down, but what a way to begin — or, I should say, to have a pause in the election in Ohio.

  • Karen Kasler:

    Yes, this started with a press conference.

    Governor Mike DeWine has been doing press conferences every day around 2:00 in the afternoon. And he announced yesterday that he and Secretary of State Frank LaRose were going to take action to try the move the primary, because they were really concerned about voters being able to maintain that physical distance.

    And they felt that it wasn't fair — that it wasn't fair to ask people to abandon their health and risk their health to exercise a constitutional right. So there were a couple of plaintiffs who went to court to try the move the primary.

    Then, Governor DeWine and Secretary of State LaRose expected the judge to go along and move it. He didn't. He said he didn't have the authority to do it and also said it would set a bad precedent.

    So then Governor DeWine, through his Ohio Department of Health director, Dr. Amy Acton, issued an order saying that there was a significant risk to health to voters, and he was shutting down all 3,658 polling places in the state.

    The problem was, there was a lot of confusion going on at the time. Poll workers were getting conflicting messages, saying they needed to go to work, they didn't need to go to work. There were some Web sites that showed that the election was delayed, that the election was on.

    So it was a very confusing time. And, of course, voters, some voters even showed up at some of those polling places this morning, thinking the election was on, because they hadn't heard the news when they had gone to bed at night.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We haven't seen anything like this before.

    But you're right. It was back and forth. I was watching it last night, keeping an eye on the computer on what the reports were. And you literally didn't know until almost midnight what was going to happen.

    Now the vote has been delayed until June; is that right?

  • Karen Kasler:

    Well, there's a lawsuit just filed by the Ohio Democratic Party to try the move that to April 28 and to have only mail voted, only absentee, no in-person voting, no Election Day, so to speak.

    The governor talked about moving that in-person voting to June 2. The Democratic Party wants it to be on April 28. And so it'll be interesting to see when that final result is.

    And, also, state lawmakers say they want to have a role in this. They feel like they're the ones who have the authority to set the actual election date.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Karen Kasler of Ohio Public Radio.

    When you first said only mail voting, for some reason, I thought you were talking about only men, and then I realized you meant mail-in voting. We got it right.

  • Karen Kasler:

    Mail-in.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Karen Kasler, thank you. Thank you so much.

    And now to the biggest prize of the day that. And that is the state of Florida, where 219 delegates are up for grabs.

    David Smiley of The Miami Herald joins us via Skype.

    David, tell us about the effect of coronavirus on voters and the election there in Florida.

  • David Smiley:

    Well, projections that I have heard have Election Day voting down more than 50 percent today.

    But that would be likely made up through an increase — particularly for Democrats, an increase in early voting and especially mail voting. Florida is a no-excuse mail ballot state.

    And we have seen the Democratic Party aggressively court voters to

    request mail (AUDIO GAP) ballots (AUDIO GAP) voters (AUDIO GAP) and the number of voters casting ballots from their home has gone way up.

    So the turnout is going to look somewhere along the lines of the 2016 primary, even though Election Day voting will be way down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're — we're catching some — a little bit of audio breakup.

    But I just quickly want to ask you. Going into this, it looked like Joe Biden in good shape in Florida?

  • David Smiley:

    Yes, Biden has been way ahead in every poll.

    I think, going into this election, Bernie Sanders supporters hoped that the baseline for his support would be his performance against Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he lost by a 2-1 margin. And it looks like that may actually be his ceiling this year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, David Smiley, joining us from the Sunshine State, we appreciate it.

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