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Primary Polling Places Are Full Of Older People … And The Coronavirus

On Friday, an exhausted-looking election official in Arizona was speaking at a press conference about the state’s upcoming primary when he gave up, mid-speech. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” said Maricopa County election day director Scott Jarrett, before he left the platform, and the room. It had been a difficult week. Arizona election officials were organizing a vote while also figuring out how to protect voters from the novel coronavirus. State officials fought in court over the legality of mail-in ballots, and 78 polling places — many of them schools and nursing homes — pulled out of participating in Tuesday’s primary.

So how ‘bout this election in the middle of a pandemic? The novel coronavirus is capable of spreading through human contact and objects we’ve touched. It hits older people harder. Public health experts are advising that everyone cancel large gatherings to prevent its spread. Which leaves something like a primary election, where an overwhelmingly older electorate files through lines, touches shared pens, and coughs on each other, in an awkward spot.

Yet 26 states still need to vote. Arizona isn’t the only state struggling to figure out what to do. Wyoming will no longer have an in-person caucus — it’s now vote by mail only. Louisiana and Georgia have postponed their primaries.

And there’s good reason for those states to change plans. Primary elections really are a setting at which coronavirus could spread, said Sam Scarpino, a professor of environmental sciences at Northeastern University. He studies infectious diseases, models their spread and does outbreak surveillance. If a state isn’t postponing the primary, it should be taking the risks seriously and making plans to reduce transmission — regularly cleaning and disinfecting shared equipment like voting machines throughout the day, and creating more physical distance between voters.

The CDC made similar recommendations — adding that the first line of defense should be encouraging ways to vote while being socially distant, such as vote-by-mail, early voting, voting during off-peak hours and drive-up voting. “The best solution to protect voters – especially older voters – is in fact mail-in voting,” Maimuna Majumder, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School’s Computational Health Informatics Program, wrote to me in an email. Just don’t lick the envelope, she added.

But it’s not going to be easy to reduce crowding and increase cleaning when the number of polling places is shrinking and disinfecting supplies are scarce. About 130 polling places in Ohio have dropped out because they were also the homes of vulnerable populations, according to Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper. As of Friday, replacements were being arranged and voters contacted about the changes, but it’s likely a lot of Ohioans will show up Tuesday to find a notice telling them they need to go to a different location. In Arizona, Maricopa County is dealing with the problem by establishing 111 new Vote Anywhere centers beyond the 40 it originally had, where county residents can vote regardless of the location of their house.

The other big problem: poll workers. There’s already a routine shortage of volunteers at polling places, according to data from the federal Election Assistance Commission. During the 2016 elections, for instance, nearly 65 percent of jurisdictions reported difficulty arranging for a sufficient number of poll workers.

What’s more, the poll workers themselves are overwhelmingly part of the population most at risk for coronavirus complications. That same EAC survey collected age data on 53 percent of the poll workers who volunteered in 2016. Of that number, 32 percent were from 61 to 70 years old and another 24 percent were 71 or older. Numbers from China suggest that the risk of dying from coronavirus looks like a hockey stick — small for people under the age of 60, but shooting up fast after that. The death rate was 3.6 percent for people 60 to 69 years old, 8 percent for those in their 70s and 14.8 percent for people 80 and older. Death rates in Italy have followed a similar pattern.

So, what to do? Volunteers should be given gloves, Scarpino told me. They should stay home if they have any symptoms of sickness at all. And with all the contact they’re likely to have with hundreds of people — some of whom have to be assumed to be sick — he thought poll workers fell into a category in which it would be a good idea for them to wear a mask. (In the U.S., public health officials have recommended that only sick people, or healthy people caring for the sick, wear masks — largely to ensure there are enough masks available for healthcare workers.)

But one big thing individuals can do to make primaries safer right now is change the age demographics of who works them. “If you’re in your 20s or 30s, maybe you go volunteer at polling locations and let the retirees stay home,” Scarpino said.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.