Voters across America navigated curfews and health concerns Tuesday in a slate of primary elections amid dueling national crises as Joe Biden looked to move closer to formally clinching the Democratic presidential nomination.
In all, nine states and the District of Columbia were hosting elections, including four that delayed their April contests because of the coronavirus outbreak. While voters cast ballots from Maryland to Montana, Pennsylvania offered the day’s biggest trove of delegates. The state also represented a significant test case for Republicans and Democrats working to strengthen their operations in a premier general election battleground.
The dynamic was especially intense in Washington, D.C., where Mayor Muriel Bowser imposed a 7 p.m. curfew as law enforcement agencies and National Guard troops prepared for a fifth night of protests near the White House following the police killing of George Floyd. A large fence was erected in front of the White House and military vehicles blocked some streets in downtown.
In-person voting numbers were down in every state as many voters were encouraged to vote by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet there were reports of long lines, particularly in minority communities in the Philadelphia area, where election officials consolidated the vast majority of polling places to minimize health risks, according to Erin Kramer, executive director of One Pennsylvania.
She noted that some polling places in African American communities are in police stations.
“Having to stand in line while police officers are entering and exiting the building on police business is not exactly how people want to spend their election day,” Kramer said.
Biden was on the primary ballot in almost every state in his bid to unify Democrats behind his campaign against Trump. The former vice president is already the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, given that all his rivals have dropped out of the race, but he needs to win 89% of all delegates at stake on Tuesday to formally clinch the nomination.
If he doesn’t secure the needed delegates Tuesday, he has other opportunities to do so this month.
Biden was in Philadelphia on Tuesday morning to deliver remarks about the civil unrest that has erupted across the nation. He didn’t talk about the primary, instead focusing his attention on Trump, whom Biden blasted as “more interested in power than in principle.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is not actively campaigning, having suspended his operation and endorsed Biden, but his name will appear on the ballots. On the eve of Tuesday’s primaries, senior adviser Jeff Weaver encouraged progressives to vote for Sanders anyway.
“People who support Bernie Sanders and his agenda, who want to maximize the influence of progressives at the convention, should cast their vote for Bernie Sanders,” Weaver said, reminding voters that the Vermont senator is seeking leverage to shape the party’s platform and rules.
The comments serve as a reminder that Biden may have no legitimate Democratic rivals remaining but must still win over skeptical activists from his party’s far-left flank, who worry he’s too close to the political establishment.
Party unity will likely be an afterthought this week, however, as more immediate health and safety concerns dominate the national conversation. The coronavirus death toll has surged past 100,000 nationwide, and thousands of new cases are reported each day.
At the same time, several major cities, including some voting Tuesday, are grappling with protests.
Some voters said Trump’s increasingly tough tone toward protesters inspired them to participate in the democratic process. Nicholas Autiello, who works in finance in Rhode Island, said he was disturbed by police driving back peaceful demonstrators near the White House on Monday.
“Last night, we have a president who is acting like a dictator,” Autiello said. “So being able to come out here this morning and fill in a circle next to a name for someone who I know will restore honor and decency to the presidency was so important.”
In Washington, the mayor ordered a 7 p.m. curfew, though voting places will be open until 8 p.m. Voting has been deemed essential, and city officials say voters will not be subject to arrest if they cast ballots during the curfew. Philadelphia moved its 6 p.m. curfew back to 8:30 p.m. for Tuesday to accommodate voting.
“We are in unique times, and voting is a unique challenge for people,” said Josh Schwerin, chief strategist for the pro-Democrat super PAC Priorities USA. He said that his organization and others will be watching closely on Tuesday “to see how well it works, where issues are and where obstacles have been put in place.”
Political groups have had to adjust as some states move to a system that relies largely on voting by mail. They include Montana, where all 56 counties decided to vote entirely by mail. Voting rights watchdogs in multiple states have expressed concerns about access to mail ballots, confusion about deadlines and a shortage of poll workers that could lead to long lines.
Those voting Tuesday include the District of Columbia, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Dakota. Two other states holding primary elections, Idaho and Iowa, chose its presidential nominee early in the year and is now focused on other offices.
“We think we’re prepared,” Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills said. “Thank goodness we have the opportunity of working this out in the primary because we don’t know where we’ll be with the pandemic in November.”