AP NEWS

Biden wins Arizona Democratic primary in coronavirus shadow

March 18, 2020 GMT
1 of 6
An Arizona voter leaves the polling station after casting his ballot in the Arizona presidential preference election Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
1 of 6
An Arizona voter leaves the polling station after casting his ballot in the Arizona presidential preference election Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX (AP) — Joe Biden won the Arizona Democratic primary Tuesday after the state pressed ahead with its election in the shadow of the coronavirus outbreak that has crippled parts of the nation.

Arizona Democrats, some wearing gloves or masks as a protective measure against COVID-19, helped push the former vice president closer to the Democratic nomination as he strengthened a delegate lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Biden also won the primaries in Florida and Illinois on Tuesday, while the polls were shuttered in Ohio.

Determined to continue the election as much of daily life ground to a halt, officials statewide reported only sporadic issues with poll workers who didn’t show or other glitches but avoided widespread chaos. Gone too were the hours-long lines in Maricopa County that marred the presidential primaries four years ago.

To prepare, election officials consolidated polling places, worked to line up backup poll workers and emphasized disinfecting equipment as businesses, schools and other public places shut down to keep people from passing the virus.

Most voted by mail, and the number of ballots returned surpassed the 2016 primary numbers before any Election Day votes were counted.

The state’s top election official declined to seek a delay in voting, saying there was no certainty it would be safer to hold the election in the future. Florida and Illinois are moving ahead with their primaries Tuesday, while Ohio postponed.

The Democratic ballot has 18 names, including more than a dozen candidates who have dropped out. But the race boils down to a face-off between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I was more nervous about the wrong candidate winning than I was about the virus at this point,” said Nisha Hindosha, a 50-year-old nurse from Tempe.

She said she voted for Biden, concerned that Sanders was too far to the left to beat Trump.

At a polling place in a Lutheran church in Phoenix, a steady stream of voters meant several people had to wait to enter until others left. Others saw only a trickle.

Toni Benjamin, who wore blue medical gloves to guard against the coronavirus when voting at a polling place in downtown Phoenix, previously supported Elizabeth Warren and has since settled on Joe Biden.

“I like Biden’s experience. He certainly does have the experience,” Benjamin said. “Career politicians are career liars — every last one of them. But he was agreeable to me because of his past performance, because of his diplomacy. He was presidential even as a vice president.”

Some counties scrambled to find last-minute replacements for poll workers who were concerned about the virus.

“A lot of our elderly poll workers are dedicated, and they want to be there. This is their civic duty,” Navajo County elections director Rayleen Richards said. “But their children are calling me and saying, ‘Can they not?’ That’s definitely understandable.”

In Arizona’s most populous county, 148 voting locations were staffed and operating, Maricopa County elections department spokeswoman Megan Gilbertson said. Three planned vote centers backed out Monday, she said.

Ben Keeney, a 22-year-old bartender from Tempe, said he was afraid he’d find a chaotic polling place, “but that’s not the case today.” He voted for Sanders, hoping to keep his candidacy alive despite Biden’s surge.

“I don’t think it’s completely sunk but it’s an uphill battle for sure,” Keeney said of Sanders’ shot at winning the nomination.

The COVID-19 virus for most people causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, particularly older people or those with underlying health conditions, it can cause more severe illness.

Sanders and Biden will vie for Arizona’s 67 possible delegates to the Democratic Convention. The remaining candidates will earn delegates if they get at least 15% of the vote. Dropped-out candidates can direct their delegates to back their favored candidate, but they are free to support who they want.

Republicans aren’t holding a primary for President Donald Trump. Libertarians chose delegates to their convention at a state party meeting.

Late Tuesday, Hobbs said she learned that her office had failed to protect the personal information of 78 voters who were supposed to have their addresses and other information kept confidential. As a result, the information was released to the Democratic Party and potentially passed on to the presidential campaigns looking to woo voters in Arizona.

Voter registration information is generally public record and disclosed to recognized political parties. But state law allows people in certain professions, such as police officers and judges, as well as victims of crimes like domestic violence to keep their personal information out of the database.

Hobbs said the disclosure didn’t affect people in Maricopa or Pima counties, and the voter registration database was not breached. She said those affected will be notified, and those who received the information will be asked to destroy it.

___

Associated Press photographer Matt York in Phoenix and writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff contributed.

___

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Ben Halloran’s last name in one instance.