Amid massive social unrest and the continuing coronavirus pandemic, voters in Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Washington D.C. will cast their ballots on Tuesday.
Americans in nine states and Washington D.C. will cast their ballots in primary elections on Tuesday, despite massive social unrest and an ongoing global pandemic that have upended voting like nothing else in recent history.
From Maryland to Montana, voters are being asked to navigate curfews, health concerns, and a sharp increase in mail balloting as they vote in primary elections for federal, state, and local offices. Four states were originally scheduled to vote in April but delayed their elections because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Pennsylvania has absorbed much of the spotlight, given its swing state status, but with November’s presidential match-up between President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden all but official, Tuesday’s state and local races are most likely to have an impact—especially as the results of those races could help determine the government’s response to the ongoing crises.
Other states voting Tuesday are: Idaho, Indiana, New Mexico, Rhode Island and South Dakota. Voters in Iowa, which selected its presidential nominees earlier in the year, will also cast their votes in down-ballot races. Residents of the District of Columbia will also vote on Tuesday.
Many voters have opted to cast their ballots by mail due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 105,000 Americans, but many others will still vote in-person.
In anticipation of Tuesday, many states have implemented safety measures to try and protect individuals from contracting or spreading the virus. Pennsylvania implemented social distancing and disinfecting guidelines for polling places and ordered 6,000 infection-protection kits for voting sites, which include supplies such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other cleaning sanitizers.
“We think we’re prepared,” Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills said. “Thank goodness we have the opportunity of working this out in the primary because we don’t know where we’ll be with the pandemic in November.”
Despite these preparations, reports emerged on Tuesday morning of issues at polling sites. In Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, for example, Colleen Kennedy, an activist volunteering at the polls for the first time, said her voting site did not have cleaning supplies or masks for voters or poll workers. “We definitely did not have enough [personal protective equipment,]” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In Baltimore County, Maryland, a reporter pointed out that the conditions were not particularly sanitary, as “voters have to touch 4 doors to enter and exit and they are not being wiped down.”
The Inquirer also reported that voting machines were not ready to go at some sites around Philadelphia, while election supplies were missing from others. Local election officials have also had to contend with the ongoing protests over the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, which continued across the region on Monday evening.
Election officials said mail-in ballots were not affected during the protests, but acknowledged the protests had raised new challenges, such as how to protect polling places without using a police presence that intimidates voters. As the Inquirer reported, they also knew that the ongoing unrest might cause poll workers to drop out and could make it more difficult for voters to reach the polls, due to street closures and disruptions to public transit.
In Washington D.C., voters will head to the polls just one day after police and U.S. military fired flash-bang shells, tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of peaceful protesters, so that President Trump could get a photo op outside St. Jonathan’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
In response to the protests, Mayor Muriel Bowser enacted a curfew that begins at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, even as voting centers remain open until 8 p.m. Voting has been deemed essential, and city officials say voters will not be subject to arrest if they cast ballots during the curfew. It’s much the same in Philadelphia, where officials have promised that voters would not be arrested should their city’s 6 p.m. curfew be extended for a fourth consecutive night.
Still, others have raised concerns that prospective voters could be arrested while exercising their constitutional right to vote. Police across the nation, after all, have repeatedly provoked peaceful protesters and non-protesters alike over the past week.
“We are particularly concerned about how the protests, and particularly the response to the protests, are going to affect voting,” Suzanne Almeida, the interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, told Politico. “Asking people to walk through, or near, or around police or National Guard who are armed can feel dangerous. Particularly voters of color, but other voters as well.”
Voters in many other cities could also run into problems. The Baltimore board of elections announced that it shut down a ballot drop box outside the board’s office on Monday “due to safety concerns in the area,” and instead directed voters to 14 other drop boxes throughout the city.
Other voters also found that their polling sites had been moved without notice.
Collectively, the protests and the pandemic have turned the traditional election day norms upside down. “We’ve run out of ways to describe how unusual this situation is,” David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the nonpartisan good-government advocacy group Committee of Seventy told Politico.
“We are in unique times and voting is a unique challenge for people,” said Josh Schwerin, chief strategist for the pro-Democrat super PAC Priorities USA. He said that his organization and others will be watching closely on Tuesday “to see how well it works, where issues are, and where obstacles have been put in place.”
Adding to the tension of the moment is that Tuesday’s primary elections could play a role in any future coronavirus legislation or policing reform. As former President Barack Obama said on Monday, local elections are critical to achieving such reforms.
“The elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels,” Obama wrote in a Medium post. “It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct.”
Obama also pointed out that the turnout for these sorts of races was usually “pitifully low,” which he said “makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.”
Obama called on those seeking change to not only protest, but to vote as well. “The choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform,” Obama said.
Obama’s call was echoed by Terrence Floyd, George Floyd’s brother. During a Monday afternoon speech in Minneapolis, Floyd pleaded with protesters to stay non-violent and encouraged them to vote as well.
“Let’s stop thinking that our voice don’t matter and vote — not just the president, vote for the preliminaries,” Floyd said to a chorus of applause. “Vote for everybody. Educate yourself, educate yourself. Don’t wait for somebody else to tell you who’s who; educate yourself and know who you’re voting for. And that’s how we’re going to hit them.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.