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'First Super Tuesday' Of The COVID-19 Era: Voting Amid Protests, Pandemic

An election official waits to check in voters behind a plastic barrier Tuesday at a polling place at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
An election official waits to check in voters behind a plastic barrier Tuesday at a polling place at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C.

Facing a pandemic that continues to spread through the United States and protests nationwide over the killing of another black man at the hands of police, voters headed to the polls Tuesday in more than half a dozen states.

It's a primary election date that was already going to be a challenge for election officials due to health concerns, even before nationwide unrest led to curfew orders in conflict with polling place hours in some places.

In Washington, D.C., as well as the eight states voting Tuesday, the vast majority of ballots are expected to be mailed in. In Montana, for instance, election officials mailed every active registered voter a ballot.

But the in-person voting options that are also required to be offered in many places create a unique problem.

In Philadelphia, for instance, officials are trying to reassure voters they won't be arrested for voting in the Pennsylvania primary if the city decides to extend a 6 p.m. curfew to Tuesday. Polling places will stay open in the city until 8 p.m.

"Philly residents will not be arrested or prosecuted for going to or coming from voting tomorrow," District Attorney Larry Krasner told NPR member station WHYY on Monday. "No curfew is going to interfere with any voter going to the polls. Please do not let these circumstances dissuade you."

Similarly, the District of Columbia's Board of Elections announced that vote centers, which are scheduled to be open until 8 p.m., would not be affected by a 7 p.m. curfew order in the city.

"Voters at Vote Centers and election workers are permitted to be at Vote Centers at 7, and are allowed a reasonable amount of time to get home," the board tweeted Monday evening.

Across the country, jurisdictions are also having to adjust their in-person voting options to reduce health risks and accommodate massive poll worker shortages.

The District is maintaining 20 polling places as a result of the pandemic, as opposed to its usual144, and Philadelphia is also offering about a fifth of its normal locations.

In Rhode Island, election officials are providing voters with "one-time use stylus/pen combination devices" to check in on electronic machines, and vote on paper. The secretary of state's office issued a seven-page report detailing how precincts should be organized and cleaned.

Beyond the logistical concerns, the next question is simply whether people will be motivated to vote despite the obstacles, especially now that the Democratic presidential primary is all but wrapped up.

"We really are in uncharted territory for voting in America," Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. "We won't know the impact of the challenges we're facing until much later."

Her organization runs a hotline (866-OUR-VOTE) that voters can call with questions or issues, and she said they received almost 3,000 calls in the past week. On Tuesday, the organization has fielded calls about Indiana voters facing long lines in Indianapolis, Maryland voters who say they did not receive their absentee ballots on time, and Pennsylvania voters confused by precinct changes.

Johnson-Blanco called it the "first super Tuesday of the COVID era," and she said that any problems encountered could be clues to issues that should be expected to sprout up again in the general election in November.

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Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.