At 8:00 pm, the Associated Press declared former Vice President Joe Biden the winner of the Florida primary, the moment the polls closed.
Just 23 minutes later, the AP called Illinois for Biden, too. Arizona followed hours later.
The wins were expected – the polls had been trending that way for some time – but that’s where the normalcy of this election day ended. The results come as COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, was ripping through America, leaving hospitals increasingly strained and the economy on the brink.
The fact that Florida, Illinois and Arizona decided to hold an election was controversial to begin with, as Americans nationwide have been asked to socially distance themselves from one another -not, say, stand in line at a polling station.
Voters in Ohio were also scheduled to vote in person, though a messy Monday of attempts by the governor and the state’s chief election official to postpone the election over health concerns caused chaos and confusion in the state.
Late Monday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced the polls would be closed as a matter of a health emergency.
The last-minute Ohio confusion showed the fluidity of life in the time of the pandemic. As early voting went on just days before the March 17 primary deadline, the leading election officials in Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Arizona had said in a joint statement Friday they were “confident that voters in our states can safely and securely cast their ballots in this election.”
But the elections in Illinois, Florida and Arizona pressed on, sparking controversy. News footage showed long lines of voters in Illinois since many polling stations were closed due to their location in schools or senior centers.
Public officials also argued openly. The Chicago Sun-Times wrote that Jim Allen, a spokesman for the elections board in Chicago said Tuesday “that the city in a March 11 phone call had urged (Illinois Gov. JB) Pritzker’s office to cancel in-person voting today in favor of mail-in ballots.”
When a reporter tweeted out some of Allen’s comments, Pritzker’s chief of staff Anne Caprara responded on social media to challenge him.
“The Governor has been trying to balance continuity of government, not disenfranchising people who already voted, avoiding a legal crisis & keeping everyone safe,” Caprara said in a follow up tweet. “The Chicago Board of Elections have been worried about scoring cheap political points.”
In Arizona, the closure of nearly 80 voting locations in the Phoenix area led to some confusion from voters who arrived at their typical precinct to find them closed.
“I went to Valley View, I went to another school down that way where they used to vote, and the police brought me here,” Sharon Maxwell, an 80-year-old Arizona retiree, told MSNBC on Tuesday. “I went to Circle K to find out who knows where we vote at!”
“It’s hard to think of another time that’s quite like this in our lifetimes,” Richard Hasen, an expert on election law at the University of California, Irvine, said as voting was held Tuesday.
On a call with reporters Tuesday morning, voting rights advocates outlined a portrait of confusion that had unsettled voters trying to make their thoughts heard. Experts headed into Tuesday already fearing how the virus could impact turnout as tension built in the lead-up to the contests.
In Palm Beach there were polling places that did not open or didn’t open with people who could unlock equipment, said Liza McClenaghan, chair of the governing board of Common Cause Florida.
“We have several polling locations in the process of moving to a new location,”said a message posted on the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Office Facebook page after polls opened Tuesday. “We will update this info. as soon as a new location is ready to accept voters.”
According to The Associated Press, Biden headed into Tuesday’s contests with 898 delegates to Sanders 745. Even though Biden is still far from winning the amount of delegates he’d need to clinch the Democratic nomination, the party’s method for allocating delegates makes it difficult to overcome a substantial advantage like Biden’s.
With health fears growing a handful of states including Kentucky, Maryland, Georgia and Louisiana have postponed their primaries.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez tried to discourage that move in a statement Tuesday afternoon and called on voting by mail to “be made available to all registered voters.”
Perez also advocated for excuse free absentee voting and expanded in person early voting if public health guidelines are met. The situation in Ohio “only bred more chaos and confusion,” Perez said.
“Eligible voters deserve certainty, safety, and accessibility,” Perez said in the statement. “That’s why states that have not yet held primary elections should focus on implementing the aforementioned measures to make it easier and safer for voters to exercise their constitutional right to vote, instead of moving primaries to later in the cycle when timing around the virus remains unpredictable.”
Sanders’ campaign also wasn’t shy about voicing health concerns ahead of polls closing Tuesday. A campaign official said in a statement Tuesday morning that traditional get out the vote moves were not being used in the Tuesday primary states.
“We are making clear to voters that we believe going to the polls amid the coronavirus outbreak is a personal decision and we respect whichever choice they make,” Bernie 2020 Communications Director Mike Casca said in a statement.
In Arizona, the state Democratic party painted a more optimistic picture of turnout before polls closed.
“As we expected, the early ballot surge has allowed us to beat 2016 voter turnout levels,” Arizona Democratic Party spokesman Matt Grodsky said in a statement. “We will know in-person voting numbers at a later time, but are thrilled at the number of early ballots that were cast. Democrats are energized and determined to beat this President in November,”
Roughly a week ago, American politics was much simpler. On a day where Sanders needed strong showings in states he performed well in during his 2016 run- Michigan, Washington and Missouri- Biden once again beat back the chance for the 78-year-old to build a real sense of momentum.
Coronavirus fears had begun to spike that day, with each candidate canceling events in Ohio. Sanders declined to address supporters in any public form that night and instead retreated to his home base in Burlington, Vermont. When he emerged Wednesday afternoon, he committed to staying in the race to debate Biden on Sunday and made clear his plans to push Biden on the progressive issues the senator has long championed.
But as health fears escalated, Sanders saw another opportunity to champion his prized Medicare for All policy idea. Over a series of live streamed events, Sanders stressed that the current pandemic is just a further reminder of the flaws in the American healthcare system that he has long bemoaned.
As voting came to a close in other states, confusion remained in Ohio where the move by Gov. DeWine and officials to keep the polls closed Tuesday served as a flashpoint for a historically strange day of voting in American history.
For his part, DeWine publicly stood by the choices he had made in a joint statement with the Ohio Secretary of State.
“It is abundantly clear that it would have been impossible to carry out a fair, accessible, and safe election today,” DeWine tweeted.