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"This is an all-hands-on-deck situation": How coronavirus could derail the 2020 election

Last week, President Trump stated that not only is he unconcerned about the worsening pandemic of the novel coronavirus, but that his supporters shouldn’t be either. In fact, he said as medical experts were beginning to encourage social distancing that he would continue to hold rallies, telling reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, “We will have tremendous rallies and we’re doing very well and we’ve done a fantastic job with respect to that subject on the virus.”

COVID-19, the novel form of coronavirus that was first reported in Wuhan, China, late last year, has now infected more than 135,000 people worldwide. Italy has shut down the entire country of 60 million people, restricting movement to only essential or emergency travel, following China’s lead in an effort to reduce spread from person to person. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that it's likely up to 70% of the country will be infected with coronavirus. South Korea is testing nearly 20,000 people every day.

In the U.S., the coronavirus crisis has escalated severely in a matter of days. After a trickle of cities and venues deciding to cancel gatherings of large amounts of people, social distancing efforts exploded Wednesday night when the NBA suspended the remainder of its season after a player tested positive for coronavirus. On Thursday, the NHL followed suit, with many NCAA basketball conference tournaments also being canceled as well as the "March Madness" Division I men's and women's basketball tournaments. In New York, Broadway went dark Thursday after an usher tested positive for the disease, while landmarks like Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art also closed their doors. Universities across the country have additionally shut down.

The spread of coronavirus poses a unique threat, however, to a major event that has no singular location: the 2020 election. With the pandemic worsening in the U.S., local officials are taking precautions and adjusting their plans for the primary season. Twenty-seven states still have to cast their ballots.

The CDC and state health officials have cautioned against or even outright outlawed gathering in large groups, and new research has found that the virus can stay in the air for hours through cough particles. Voting requires touching a lot of things that other people have touched — door handles, pens, paper ballots, voting machines, stickers, buttons. And while simply coming into contact with an infected surface isn't enough to contract coronavirus — you'd have to then transfer the bacteria through your eyes, nose, or mouth — visiting a crowded polling station and asking people to share pens and machines can be a risky endeavor, especially for the most vulnerable populations.

In Ohio, where three people tested positive for the virus, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who is in charge of overseeing elections, moved 75 polling places out of senior citizen centers in an effort to protect against vulnerable populations; older people are much more likely to die from the virus.

Ohio's primary is Tuesday. Sally J. Krisel, the deputy director of elections in Hamilton County, which encompasses Cincinnati, tells Mic that the state's Board of Elections is taking a number of precautions to deal with the virus. The board has “made a kit that's going out to every polling location in the county,” she says, which includes wipes, hand sanitizer, and plastic gloves.

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Krisel says people have been calling to ask about what precautions they should take about voting. Most people she’s spoken with aren’t deterred from voting, she says, but rather rather want to hear what steps are being taken to protect against the spread of disease. “We haven't really heard a lot of fear,” Krisel says.

Early voting at the 573 polling locations in Hamilton County is up since 2016, Krisel adds, though it’s unclear how much of that is due to the coronavirus outbreak or due to some polling locations being moved to more accessible areas of the county.

In Chicago, election officials are encouraging as many people as possible to apply for a mail-in ballot as soon as possible or to vote early as a way to reduce the risk of exposure on election day. Illinois's primary is also March 17.

“We're strongly encouraging people to use early voting,” Jim Allen at the Chicago Board of Elections tells Mic. “This is an all-hands-on-deck situation.” Chicago voters can use any of the 52 polling locations in the area to cast an early ballot, which officials are encouraging in order to limit the risk of person-to-person spread.

It's still difficult to assess the rate of infection in the U.S., given that the White House has been offering somewhat contradictory information from the CDC. For instance, Trump said last month that COVID-19 infections will reduce with the onset of spring, a theory experts don't agree on, and the CDC has neglected to make widely available tests for individuals who have reported their symptoms.

On Friday, Louisiana announced that it would postpone its April 4 primary. Over half of election day commissioners are over 65 years old, Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin stated in a press conference, citing that fact as part of the reason the state moved to push its election back to June 20. Elderly people are at a particular risk for COVID-19, as are other individuals with compromised immune systems. "Safe and secure elections also mean safety for the people of Louisiana," Ardoin said during the press conference.

Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times noted however that Louisiana might be a unique case, given that it was a bipartisan decision to postpone its primary, one that was enabled by an existing state law. "This was a decision that was made after close cooperation between our secretary of state's office and the governor's office," Tyler Brey, the press secretary for the Louisiana secretary of state's office, tells Mic. "It's certainly not a time for politics. ... The decision to request an executive order to postpone the election was made with those voters and citizens in mind."

New York, Trump's home state, votes April 18. There's no word yet on whether the city is adjusting its election day processes in light of the virus, though reasons to request a vote by mail have been expanded.

"What we've done ... is change the conditions under which you can request an absentee ballot," Erie County Board of Elections spokesperson Derek Murphy tells Mic. "People can check public health emergency as a reason for requesting a ballot. They don't have to be out of state, they can simply state under the current conditions [that] they'd like to mail their vote in rather than report to a polling place where transmission is possible."

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In Maryland, election officials and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) are in talks to potentially require that all voters cast their ballots by mail. Baltimore City Elections Board Director Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. told The Baltimore Sun that changing the nature of the election just weeks before it's set to be held — the state's primary is April 28 — could cost the state "millions," so he's hoping leaders will make a plan quickly.

"We appreciate that this is an evolving situation and are taking every appropriate step to deliver a safe and secure election for Maryland voters and election workers," Nikki Charlson, a deputy administrator for the Maryland State Board of Elections, wrote in an email to Mic. The state's board of elections additionally "reminds voters who prefer to vote from home that they can request an absentee ballot" by going to the state election board's website.

One state that has already made a definitive decision is Massachusetts, where the Massachusetts Democratic Party announced this week that it would temporarily suspend all state caucuses in order to mitigate the threat of COVID-19. The state already held its presidential primary March 3, but some towns had yet to hold their state caucuses, which are used to select delegates who will vote on Senate nominees on behalf of their town at the state convention.

"I think that given the nature of the governor's state of emergency they have made a prudent decision," Massachusetts Democratic National Committee member Kate Donaghue tells Mic. "I think ... that campaigns will have no choice [but] to go to less traditional means of campaigning where people leverage relationships. The kind of traditional door knocking that we might normally rely on is not going to be an option."

This Tuesday, Florida, Ohio, Arizona, and Illinois are scheduled to hold primaries. Each state has either declared a state of emergency or an official public health crisis. In a joint press release, however, state elections officials encouraged people to still vote. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Illinois Elections Board Chairman Charles Scholz, and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said, "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, and that otherwise healthy poll workers can and should carry out their patriotic duties on Tuesday." Mic reached out to all four states for additional comment but didn't receive a response.

Either way, coronavirus has changed the look of the race altogether. On the night of the March 10 primaries, the campaigns of the leading Democratic candidates, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, both announced that they would not be holding rallies as planned. Biden's campaign announced the following day that it would be moving to "virtual events" in order to prevent against the spread of COVID-19, according to the Times. Neither campaign has plans to carry out any public rallies anytime soon, and the Trump campaign likewise said it would postpone a rally in Milwaukee just one day after it announced an intent to move forward with public events.

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The Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law issued a press release calling for swift congressional action as well as urging states and local municipalities to make voting as easy and accessible as possible. "The coronavirus exposes and will likely exacerbate the effects of unnecessary restrictions and barriers that impair access to the polls in many states," the organization's president and executive director Kristen Clarke said in the statement. "Officials should seize this moment to put in place long overdue reforms that can help to ensure access to the ballot at a moment when the coronavirus has introduced new challenges and barriers."

While the coronavirus outbreak is halting events for those already on the ballot, the congressional campaign for Phil Ehr, a candidate running against Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz — who is himself self-quarantining after possibly becoming exposed to coronavirus at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month — announced that it would no longer petition for signatures to place Ehr on the ballot, citing desires to protect the health and safety of constituents and volunteers. Florida state rules require candidates to either either amass 1% of registered voter signatures or otherwise pay a fee of at least $10,000 to be listed on the ballot. The Ehr campaign said in a statement that "we have instead recognized that we may have to take the traditional route of paying the ballot access fee."

This election season, experts expect increased electoral participation given the nature of political candidates and their platforms. But with coronavirus spreading in the U.S., it remains to be seen whether voters will be deterred from participating not by politics, but by pandemic.