Politics

As coronavirus threatens the elderly, Ohio asks for new volunteers to do 'patriotic duty' and work at poll sites

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Key Points
  • Ohio is asking volunteers to "defend democracy" and work at primary poll sites Tuesday amid the coronavirus outbreak, which is disproportionately targeting older people. 
  • "We are talking about it as a patriotic duty," Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in an interview. "Part of the reason for this is that the demographic that tends to be our poll workers tends to be older."
  • The primary contests scheduled for Tuesday in Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Arizona are the first in places where the pandemic has shaped the major Democratic presidential primary campaigns.
James Beavis, 33, uses hand sanitizer that the polling place provided after casting his ballot at Warren Woods Baptist Church on March 10, 2020 in Warren, Michigan.
Elaine Cromie | Getty Images

Ohio is asking volunteers to sign up to "defend democracy" and work at voting sites during Tuesday's primary election amid the coronavirus outbreak, which is disproportionately targeting older people. 

"We are talking about it as a patriotic duty," Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in an interview. "Part of the reason for this is that the demographic that tends to be our poll workers tends to be older."

LaRose noted that with colleges closing down and businesses sending people home, "a lot of people have a lot of free time on their hands."

LaRose said the measures are proactive, though there have been scattered reports from county officials about older poll worker volunteers dropping out. The state has created a web page, located at ohiosos.gov/defenddemocracy, for those looking to become precinct officials. 

"I'd rather have too many poll workers than not enough," LaRose said. "People don't realize sometimes the massive undertaking that it is to run an election." 

The state expects more than 35,000 workers across nearly 4,000 voting locations, he said. 

The call for volunteers is just one sign of local resilience to emerge from states hosting elections in the midst of a pandemic that has threatened to bring economic and cultural activity to a halt around the globe.

The primary contests scheduled for Tuesday in Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Arizona are the first in places where the pandemic has shaped the major Democratic presidential primary campaigns.

There are five confirmed cases in Ohio, 29 in Florida, 25 in Illinois and nine in Arizona, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. In Florida there have been at least two confirmed deaths. 

The coronavirus is rapidly shifting the contours of the Democratic presidential primary race.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders both canceled events this week in Ohio on Tuesday, citing the virus. CNN said on Tuesday that there will be no live audience at the Democratic debate on Sunday in Phoenix. On Thursday, the Democratic National Committee said the debate will take place instead in Washington, D.C., because of the virus. 

The effect of the disease on older people is just one consideration for state election officials. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said older people and those with chronic health conditions are more at risk from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, which has infected more than 1,300 people in the U.S. and killed at least 38

In addition to asking for volunteers to work at poll sites, Ohio has also moved polling sites out of senior facilities, encouraged more early voting and provided $50 stipends to cover the cost of sanitizing supplies at voting locations, LaRose said. The state is also providing for voting via curbside drop-off at county boards of elections on Election Day. 

Other states are also taking precautions.

Arizona said on Wednesday that it will be taking extra steps at 20 voting sites it has identified that may be frequented by seniors. The state is advising those facilities to "get the message out to vulnerable populations" that they should avoid crowds on Election Day unless they're voting, according to the statement. 

Arizona has also taken steps to mitigate a potential volunteer shortage on Election Day via a recruitment network run by the state Department of Health Services. 

In Florida, elections officials have sent out instructions from election equipment vendors explaining how to properly clean voting machines and other devices, according to the emails provided to CNBC by the Florida Secretary of State's office. 

Maria Matthews, the director of Florida's Division of Elections, also suggested that elections staff vet poll workers for possible signs of infection, including "if they have traveled overseas or been on a cruise ship recently or if they are showing active symptoms." 

In Chicago there was talk of postponing the elections entirely, according to Crain's Chicago Business. Illinois state law does not provide for deferring an election, but according to the outlet such a measure was considered after dozens of landlords canceled plans to host voting sites and senior facilities threatened to close their doors. 

The Chicago Board of Elections said on Wednesday that it is moving "full speed ahead" with its Tuesday elections, Crain's reported. The board and other Illinois officials did not respond to multiple inquiries from CNBC. 

"We're getting cooperation from the city and the state, and we're going to do everything in our collective parties to make certain that voting moves forward as scheduled on Election Day," Chicago Board of Elections spokesman Jim Allen said in an email, according to the outlet. 

LaRose, the Ohio Secretary of State, noted that elections officials tended to be flexible in the face of unforeseen difficulties. 

"I will say this: Elections officials in general, down at the local level and in the secretary of state's office, are good at being adaptable," he said. 

LaRose noted that he had never run an election during a pandemic before. But, by way of example, he said there was an instance during state elections in 2019 where a polling site's carbon monoxide alarm went off, threatening to derail voting. 

"They ran the election out of the parking lot," he said. "They know they have a fixed period of time to run a fair and free election. There is an unusual sense of patriotism and dedication."