States shuffle poll locations to protect seniors from virus
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The coronavirus threat is forcing elections officials in some states to remove polling places from nursing homes and other senior care facilities to protect older Americans, who appear to be more susceptible to the disease.
Last-minute shuffling left voters in Michigan and Missouri scrambling to get to new polling places for their Tuesday primaries. Officials in states voting next week are trying to get ahead of those disruptions by announcing changes now and beginning public information campaigns to tell voters where they are supposed to cast ballots.
In Ohio, the elections chief on Monday ordered the relocation of all polling places at nursing homes — more than 140 — just eight days ahead of the state's primary.
“Obviously, that's a big step and it requires a lot of work — and our county boards of elections are working to do that right now, as we speak,” Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose told reporters Tuesday.
Moving the polling places may be the right public health move, but it creates challenges for election administrators. Those include informing voters in surrounding areas of the change and ensuring that retirement community residents have transportation to their new polling location.
Secretaries of state across the country are taking further steps to guard public health: encouraging voting from a distance, either by mail or by using curbside drop-off locations; creating and updating dedicated websites; partnering with voting rights organizations and campaigns to get the word out; and stocking up on supplies for disinfecting voting machines.
In Missouri, officials had to react quickly after two senior living facilities backed out of serving as voting sites less than 24 hours before polls opened for Tuesday's presidential primary. Election authorities posted signs at the senior facilities redirecting voters to new polling places nearby.
A spokeswoman for Brookdale Senior Living, the Kansas City facility's operator, said the company adopted a policy Monday prohibiting groups of three or more people from entering any of its more than 700 facilities nationwide because of coronavirus concerns.
Brookdale also suspended all planned group outings, meaning it couldn’t take residents by bus to the new voting location. Some residents drove themselves or got rides from relatives or friends to the alternative polling place.
In Michigan, two private senior facilities requested that polling places in their buildings be relocated because of coronavirus concerns, Secretary of State spokesman Jake Rollow said in an email.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people who get it recover.
As Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio prepare to vote next week, officials are taking varying approaches to the virus threat.
In Florida's Palm Beach County, elections supervisor Wendy Sartory Link is moving 16 polling places out of assisted living facilities so their patients will not be exposed to voters from the community. She has found replacements for 10 at schools, churches and city halls, and believes she'll be able to relocate the other six.
“The health and safety of their residents have to come first,” she said.
The moves are being complicated because Link's poll workers contain a large percentage of senior citizens and many are backing out, fearing infection. She hopes they can be replaced, but isn't certain.
In Lake County, where a quarter of the population is over 65, elections supervisor Alan Hays said relocation is not necessary. Only residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities vote there, he said, so they are shielded from outsiders even under normal circumstances.
The state's most populous county, Miami-Dade, also has no plans to move any polling places because of the virus. Steven Vancore, a spokesman for the elections supervisor in Broward County, said just one polling place at an assisted living facility was being relocated at the management's request.
In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the state has asked all 108 local boards of elections to extend the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot until Monday. He also said the state and the city of Chicago will help move polling places out of nursing homes and other senior facilities, while ensuring that residents still can cast ballots there.
"We're doing our best to accommodate everybody to make sure that we get the kind of vote turnout that we expect," he said.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her administration was urging the city's Board of Election Commissioners to extend its deadline for requesting mail-in ballots. She also suggested voters use in-person early voting locations.
Marisel Hernandez, chair of the election commission, said Wednesday that 25 of the city's 269 polling sites, including nursing homes, must be relocated before Tuesday. Chicago officials expressed doubt about extending their deadline to request a mail-in ballot until Monday, as the governor and mayor suggested, because they said that would put pressure on the postal service and voters.
Election officials in the Phoenix area moved five polling places from assisted living or other senior care facilities to protect those residents from the virus, according to the Maricopa County Elections Department, but about eight in 10 voters there cast ballots by mail, limiting polling site traffic.
Amber McReynolds, a former Denver election administrator who is now executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute, an advocacy group, said the changes being made during the primaries should be a prelude to even bigger changes in November, when turnout will be greater.
She said it’s not enough just to encourage people to request absentee ballots. Rather, she said officials should try to do what a handful of states -- Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — already do: Mail ballots to every voter.
Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta; Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix; Katie Foody in Chicago; David Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri; Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this report.
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