Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), President Trump’s close ally, defends Trump calling the novel coronavirus a “Chinese virus.”
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Wednesday put the full machinery of government behind its response to the coronavirus pandemic as it proposed the first details of a $1 trillion economic stabilization package, asking Congress for an extraordinary infusion of $500 billion for direct payments to taxpayers and $500 billion in loans for businesses.
President Trump invoked a seldom-used wartime law that allows the government to press American industry into service to ramp up production of medical supplies. He said he would send two military hospital ships to New York and California. He directed federal agencies to suspend all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April as the full economic toll of the crisis began to set in in the United States and around the world. And he agreed with Canada to stop all nonessential traffic across the northern border.
After weeks of playing down the outbreak, Mr. Trump appeared on Wednesday to fully embrace the scope of the calamity, saying he saw himself as a wartime president and invoking memories of the efforts made by Americans during World War II.
“Now it’s our time,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference at the White House. “We must sacrifice together because we are all in this together, and we will come through together. It’s the invisible enemy.”
The prospect of escalating government intervention fell far short of reassuring investors. Markets erased Tuesday’s gains and plummeted to new lows, as reports of mass layoffs steadily reached Wall Street and Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler all said they would temporarily shutter their plants in the United States.
The S&P 500 declined nearly 5 percent, wiping away nearly all of the gains made during Mr. Trump’s presidency on another day that saw an automatic 15-minute halt in trading to prevent a stock market crash. Oil prices and European stocks were also sharply down. And the New York Stock Exchange announced it would temporarily close its trading floor for the first time in its history and move fully to electronic trading after two people there tested positive for Covid-19.
Even as Mr. Trump unveiled his aggressive plan, it was not clear how quickly it could have an effect. Just hours after the president announced his order to dispatch two military hospital ships, a Pentagon spokesman said deployment would not be possible for at least two weeks because one of the ships, the Comfort, is currently undergoing repairs in Norfolk, Va. The other ship, the Mercy, will deploy more quickly.
Though he triggered the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law that authorizes the president to take extraordinary action to force American companies to help produce material — like respirators, ventilators and protective gear for health workers — needed for national security, Mr. Trump said he was doing so now “just in case we need it.”
He also continued to refer to the disease as the “Chinese virus,” brushing off questions about whether the phrase was racist.
On Capitol Hill, Congress was racing to negotiate a swift agreement on the administration’s $1 trillion request and marry it with proposals flooding in from lawmakers, interest groups and industries. But with vast amounts of money on the line and bipartisan agreement necessary to pass anything into law, it was not clear how quickly the talks could proceed. With the memory of past bailouts fresh in their minds, lawmakers were toiling to ensure that any rescue plan would contain accountability measures for the businesses that received government aid.
After days of delay, senators voted overwhelmingly to give final approval to a relief package passed last week by the House that would provide paid leave, enhanced unemployment benefits, free coronavirus testing as well as food and health care aid. The vote was 90 to 8, with two senators not voting because they were in quarantine after coming into contact with people infected by the novel coronavirus.
Mr. Trump was expected to quickly sign the bill, which early estimates suggest could cost several hundreds of billions of dollars. But that emergency package — considered a mammoth response to the virus when it was initially drafted only a week ago — was already being eclipsed by the emerging $1 trillion stabilization plan as the damage wrought by the pandemic coursed throughout the global economy.
The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States shot past 8,000 by Wednesday evening, and deaths related to the disease rose to at least 143, fueled largely by an explosion of new cases in New York. Officials warned that the numbers would continue to rise as much-delayed testing ability ramped up in the coming days.
For the first time, the legions of infected Americans included a sitting member of Congress, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, who was on the House floor as recently as early Saturday morning voting on the virus relief bill with fellow members. In a statement, he said he had begun to develop symptoms later Saturday and received a positive test result on Wednesday.
Deborah L. Birx, the administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, issued a grim warning to the nation’s millennials, pleading with them from the White House briefing room to avoid large gatherings and to take the disease seriously amid new evidence that young people in Italy and France had become “very seriously ill” from it.
Having moved on Tuesday to wall off the southwestern border, the president announced his agreement with Canada to do the same to the north. The decision effectively closed off the United States from the rest of the continent, as Mr. Trump’s government and those around the world sought to control the spread of the virus. Separately, the State Department said it would temporarily stop issuing visas to foreign travelers.
Belgium became the latest country to lock down all but essential businesses. Italy, already ravaged by the pandemic, recorded its single deadliest day yet, with total fatalities connected to the virus approaching 3,000 and threatening to surpass China’s reported totals.
In Washington, the primary focus was on Congress, where lawmakers rushed to produce a stabilization plan large enough to prevent the country from teetering into economic collapse.
With many of its own members at elevated heath risk from the virus and bracing for potential travel restrictions, the Senate may have only a handful of days to ink a deal before leaving town for what could be an extended recess. And though the House is not in session and has not scheduled a return to Washington, many of its members were ready to fly back into town if there was a deal.
Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said his party was coming close to an agreement with the White House and could begin talks as early as Thursday with Democrats, whose support would be needed to pass anything into law.
“Republicans hope shortly to have a consolidated position along with the administration, then we intend to sit down with our Democratic colleagues to see what we can agree to,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “Just how long it will take to get through these steps is unclear, but as everyone knows, we are moving rapidly because the situation demands it.”
In a conference call with Democratic leadership and committee chairs on Wednesday afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was pushing for a bipartisan negotiation between House and Senate leaders that could yield a final agreement on the next economic rescue package by early next week.
The administration’s proposed relief package, outlined in a document circulated to lawmakers and lobbyists, called for the authority to send two waves of checks, each totaling $250 billion, directly to American taxpayers, the first on April 6 and the second on May 18. Payments would be fixed and their sizes dependent on income and family size, the summary said, in line with a proposal by Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri.
It would extend loans to small businesses equaling six weeks of their payroll up to $1,540 per employee, on the condition that the companies must keep paying their employees for eight weeks after receiving the loan. It also called for $50 billion for secured loans for the airline industry and another $150 billion for secured loans or loan guarantees for other sectors of the economy that have been devastated by the global economic shutdown as the virus spreads.
Under the plan, the Exchange Stabilization Fund, an emergency reserve account that is usually used for intervening in currency markets, would cover the costs of the secured loans to airlines and other industry players. The fund would also temporarily be allowed to guarantee money market mutual funds.
“We’re going to provide whatever economic aid we need to this economy,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNBC. “There are a lot of great companies that were great companies a month ago; they’re going to be great companies three months from now, six months from now — whatever it is.”
Mr. McConnell has insisted the Senate will not leave town until it finishes the emergency stabilization package, but the desire for speed may not guarantee that talks go smoothly. Republican senators unhappy about various provisions of the smaller relief bill passed by the House last week are likely to continue to haggle over costs and specific details of anything the chamber puts together.
Congress already passed an initial $8.3 billion package of funding for the government health agencies responding to the novel coronavirus, which Mr. Trump signed earlier this month.
On Tuesday night, the White House sent a new $45 billion request for agencies on the front lines. That request included an additional $8.3 billion for the Defense Department; $5.3 billion for the emergency preparedness and response agency at the Department of Health and Human Services; and $13.1 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover health care treatment costs, testing kits, temporary intensive care unit beds and personal protective equipment.
Senate Democratic leaders have put forward their own $750 billion plan and would have to lend at least some support to any package for it to pass the Senate.
“There are many things in this bill that are important, like no payment on student loans or mortgages, help with our mass transit systems — there are many things — and Democrats are going to fight for them in the next phase of response,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said of his proposal.
Ms. Pelosi and her lieutenants were working on their own proposals for the next round of economic help that would most likely be different from the Senate’s. Democrats in both chambers, frustrated with the administration’s push to narrow paid leave provisions in their relief bill, have indicated that they will push to expand the benefit in the next package.
Reporting was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Alan Rappeport, Catie Edmondson, Lara Jakes and Carl Hulse.
But prior to that, right-wing media spent weeks downplaying concerns about the virus.
These right-wing personalities — such as Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh — told their audiences that news coverage of the virus was hysterical and aimed at hurting Trump politically. The often-dismissive messaging from Fox News hosts was notable, given that the viewers who make up the network’s audience skew older and are, thus, more vulnerable to the disease.
In other cases, right-wing media personalities and outlets went further. Limbaugh, among others, floated a conspiracy theory that the virus was created in a Chinese lab — despite having no real evidence to support the allegation.
The irresponsible coverage had a real effect.
Polls from both Gallup and Pew Research revealed that Republicans — who are largely distrustful of mainstream news organizations and primarily turn to Fox News and other right-wing sources for information on current events — were much less likely to take the risks of the coronavirus as seriously as their Democratic counterparts.
“Among subgroups, political party identification reflects the starkest differences in levels of worry about coronavirus exposure,” concluded Justin McCarthy, an analyst at Gallup.
More specifically, Pew Research found that 79% of people who said they turned to Fox News for their news believed the media had exaggerated the risks of the virus.
In general, 59% of Republicans surveyed by Pew Research believed the media had covered the outbreak either “very well” or “somewhat well.” That was 21% lower than those on the other side of the political spectrum, with 80% of Democrats believing the media had covered the virus well.
Sixty three percent of Fox News viewers surveyed by Pew Research also said they believed the virus posed a minor threat to the health of the country, compared with 31% of MSNBC viewers and 37% of CNN viewers.
Republicans were more likely to believe conspiracy theories related to the virus. According to Pew Research, 37% of Republicans or those who leaned toward the GOP responded that they believed the virus was created in a lab, compared to 21% of Democrats or those who leaned Democratic.
Passage of the measure will also allow the Senate to devote its full attention to passing the next relief package in response to the coronavirus crisis.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans had been critical of the House-passed legislation, but emphasized that it is urgent to get relief to the American people amid the coronavirus crisis.
McConnell reiterated today that he will not adjourn the Senate until it passes what lawmakers are describing as a “phase three” economic stimulus package in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
After an initial vote last week, the House approved a set of changes to the legislation on Monday, clearing the path for the Senate to take it up this week.
The House legislation was negotiated between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Trump administration and the President has expressed support for it.
To aid in social distancing, McConnell announced ahead of the final vote that senators would take precautions during the vote.
“What we’ll do is have a 30-minute roll call vote. We want to avoid congregating here in the well,” he said. “I would encourage our colleagues to come in and vote and depart the chamber so we don’t have gaggles of conversation here on the floor. That’s particularly important for our staff here and the front of the chamber, so I would encourage everyone to take full advantage of a full 30-minute roll call vote. Come in and vote, and leave.”
He asked members to be aware of “social distancing” as they came over to the chamber and departed it and said, “With that, I think we will be able to get through the voting that will occur in all likelihood later today without violating any of the safety precautions that have been recommended to us by the Capitol Physician and others.”
Trump’s support for the House measure cleared the way for a broad, bipartisan vote in the House at the end of last week. The House later approved a set of changes to the legislation on Monday, clearing the path for the Senate to consider it, which scaled back their efforts to offer millions of Americans paid sick and family leave.
The revised legislation would still provide many workers with up to two weeks of paid sick leave if they are being tested or treated for coronavirus or have been diagnosed with it. Also eligible would be those who have been told by a doctor or government official to stay home because of exposure or symptoms.
Workers with family members affected by coronavirus and those whose children’s schools have closed would still receive up to two-thirds of their pay, though that benefit would now be limited to $200 a day.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Tami Luhby contributed to this report.
It looks like members of his administration have picked up this dirty trick.
When there’s a lack of information, you understand why everyday people grasp at the nearest possible explanation. But the President of the United States? There’s no excuse. The President’s indirection and obfuscation in the face of scientific evidence has put citizens at risk, as he invites them to think of the disease as “Chinese” and not a wholly American crisis sweeping our nation.
He added — making plain that even in a national emergency, it was revenge, not accuracy or the safety and well-being of citizens that was on his mind — “I have great love for all of the people from our country, but as you know, China tried to say at one point … that it was caused by American soldiers. That can’t happen, it’s not going to happen, not as long as I’m President. It comes from China.”
It’s that strategy that Trump, troublingly, is adopting, as he also falls back on his usual tactic of blaming someone else.
The Trump administration official who allegedly made a racist comment to a reporter isn’t an anomaly; he or she is following the contemptuous example of a bigoted boss. That Jiang tweeted it is an act of bravery, transparency and integrity.
In the midst of the crisis, we need more of what Jiang is bringing, and a whole lot less of the presidential fecklessness and Trump Team racism that puts us all at greater risk.
Hunker down; the worst is yet to come.
When I wrote about Bernie’s choice this morning, it was hard to say how long he might take to make it or even which way he would go. But as the day wore on, there were more and more signs that the end appeared to be near for the elderly socialist. For one thing, he wasn’t heading to any of the upcoming primary states to hold rallies. He and his wife were heading back to Vermont to “reassess” the campaign. When was the last time you heard about a candidate reassessing their campaign without seeing them leave the race shortly thereafter?
Now there’s been another indicator that Bernie may have thought better of continuing the battle. Axios is reporting that the Sanders campaign has “paused” all of its digital ads on Facebook. That’s typically a money-saving maneuver for someone who has seen the writing on the wall.
Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign currently has no active Facebook ads, the morning after another disappointing finish in a series of primary contests.
Why it matters: A pause in digital advertising spend on Facebook has been a good indicator that candidates are dropping out of the 2020 race before. Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg made their Facebook ads inactive hours before they suspended their campaigns.
The state of play: Sanders and his wife Jane are traveling back to Vermont today to “assess the path forward for our campaign,” per a note from his campaign manager Faiz Shakir.
Keeping in mind that this isn’t official yet, there are a few things we should be watching for if Sanders does officially drop out of the primary race. The first will be whether or not Bernie comes out and endorses Joe Biden and, if so, how heartily he does it. You’ll recall that the 2016 Democratic primary didn’t exactly end with hugs and kisses between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
More than a week ago, during a rally in Iowa, Sanders said that he would absolutely be supporting the eventual nominee if he didn’t win and he “hoped that the other candidates feel the same way.” I don’t have a hard time picturing him endorsing Biden, really. While Sanders continued to rail against the “Democratic establishment” this cycle, there hasn’t been nearly as much bad blood directly between him and Uncle Joe.
Of course, Joe Biden is the other person to watch. If Bernie does clear out, he’s the last man standing. The one thing he doesn’t want to see is a rerun of 2016 where the Bernie Bros blame him for Sanders’ failure to launch and start turning against him. That was one of the contributing factors in Hillary’s loss.
But that means that Biden is facing a choice of his own. He can start reinforcing his recent lurches to the far left in an effort to convince Sanders’ supporters that he’ll push for some of Bernie’s platform to keep them on board. But if he does, he’s feeding more ammunition to Donald Trump when the two meet for debates later this year. His other choice is to start the inevitable glide path back to the center, but that risks convincing Bernie’s base that Joe is the same moderate, establishment tool that they always accused him of being.
Tough call for Joe Biden, I think. He’s already walking something of a tightrope as it is. An enthusiastic endorsement from Sanders might go considerably further than a simple press release saying, “Well, at least he’s not Donald Trump.”
If I have to make a call on that question (and I’ve been off on my guesses too much this year as it is), I think Biden gets the Sanders endorsement pretty quickly, but it’s lukewarm at best. If Bernie Sanders has given us one calling card over the past five or six years it’s that he’s really not a good loser.
Anyone who watched the last Democratic Debate likely heard Joe Biden swing for the fences and promise that he would select a woman as his running mate. Not some specific woman, mind you. Just “a woman.” This caught the attention of plenty of women, particularly among conservatives, and the promise was roundly criticized as being patronizing and insult to the X-X chromosome contingent. The response from New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz was typical of these complaints.
How do other women not see that “I’ll pick a woman for my VP” is an insult to all of us? Saying you’ll choose “a woman” instead of naming a specific woman is wildly patronizing.
— Karol Markowicz (@karol) March 16, 2020
Rushing to Uncle Joe’s defense at the WaPo is Bloomberg journalist Jay Newton-Small. Of course it’s not patronizing, she argues. It’s just common sense.
There’s no doubt that there are plenty of women qualified to be vice president. Indeed, this year, six of them ran for the top job, an historic field, including five sitting members of Congress. “The idea that picking the best qualified person is at odds with picking a woman, if ever true, is not in 2020,” says Martha Coakley, former Massachusetts attorney general. “Women have the experience, savvy and smarts to be a great VP and by extension, the President. Witness the Democratic Primary.” …
And is it patronizing to commit to choosing a woman running mate without naming her? After all, if not votes, what can a woman bring to his ticket that a man can’t? As with so much in this political era, so many of the old memes are being turned on their head. Here’s why Biden picked a woman, and how whomever she is will likely help him come November.
Newton-Small goes on to cite numerous examples from history to bolster her claim, all the while demonstrating an apparent lack of self-awareness that almost makes the column humorous. (Almost.) She goes on to discuss Biden’s presumed shortlist of possible VP picks, paying particular attention to Amy Klobuchar, Stacey Abrams, and Sally Yates for some reason.
Experience is what counts, we are told. Something that Sarah Palin (!) supposedly lacked, in the author’s opinion. Of course, Sarah Palin was just the governor of a state, with both legislative and executive experience. Stacey Abrams was… a member of a state house of representatives. Yates was in the cabinet, but at the deputy level. At least Klobuchar has been a prosecutor and a member of the United States Senate.
But none of that addresses the original charge. Quoting Martha Coakley, the argument that “picking the best-qualified person” can’t be “at odds with picking a woman” is gamely offered up. That would be a great point if anyone had actually said that. Nobody is claiming that there aren’t any qualified women. They’re bothered by Joe’s willingness to announce upfront that his veep’s gender will be the deciding factor rather than her qualifications.
Even if we ignore all of that, the entire argument is absurd, to begin with. You’re either saying that you don’t care if you pick the best person for the job as long as they are a woman or that women are inherently more qualified than men, which is just as bad as saying the opposite.
At least Biden didn’t make himself look more foolish by trying to explain away his promise the way Newton-Small and Joe’s other defenders are doing. Joe is vowing to eliminate one half of the population from the veepstakes for one reason and one reason only. He’s trying to calm the seething anger among the progressive base about all of the female and minority candidates being weeded out of the primary… by their fellow Democratic voters. And that’s also the sole reason that Joe’s leading contender is reportedly Stacey Abrams, despite having the least experience of any of them and never rising above the state assembly level. She checks both boxes.
But as noted above, Joe’s not even trying to hide his reasons. He’s clearly smart enough to realize it would be a lost cause trying to explain it away otherwise. He’s hoping to put some excitement back into the base, drive turnout and bolster minority and female support. His friends in the media would do better to simply let him get on with it than to try to rationalize the obvious pandering going on here.
Eight Republican legislators voted against the U.S. Senate’s stimulus bill designed to provide some American workers with paid sick leave.
The Republican senators—Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, James Inhofe and James Lankford of Oklahoma, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ben Sasse of Indiana, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah—rejected the measure, which the House passed last week.
Still, the bill was approved 90-8 with overwhelming bipartisan support. The sliver of GOP opposition feared that the legislation would put undue financial burdens on small businesses and raise the deficit amid economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think that the paid sick leave is an incentive for businesses to actually let go employees will make unemployment worse,” Paul told Newsweek.
The bill now heads to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it into law.
Republicans have expressed concern that because the proposal would provide workers at companies with less than 500 employees certain benefits—up to two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave—small and midsized company owners could not afford the cost. The tax credits they would be offered by the federal government would be too little, too late, GOP lawmakers have argued, and boosting unemployment insurance would be the more prudent remedy.
“They may not be around later on,” Paul said, who offered an amendment that sought to, among other things, end the war in Afghanistan and repurpose other spending he deemed wasteful to pay for the legislation. “They’ll either get rid of the workers early on so they don’t have to do the paid leave. The other thing is, you’ve got no income, you’ve got no taxes you’re paying and nothing to claw it back from.”
In addition to the paid leave, the bill would provide free coronavirus testing and increases in unemployment insurance benefits, Medicaid, food stamps and nutrition assistance for kids at home who’d otherwise receive school lunches.
Senator Mike Braun (R-Ind.) was one of several Republicans with disagreements about the measure but who ultimately backed it because of the urgency that Washington has placed on curtailing what many believe is an impending recession. Like Paul, he would have preferred to lessen the burden on businesses by using unemployment insurance rather than forcing companies to seek tax credits at a later date.
“We need to have something, even if it’s not perfect,” Braun told Newsweek. “I think it’s important for all of us to understand the gravity of the situation we’re in.”
After a meeting on Tuesday with Treasury Sectary Steven Mnuchin, who along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) helped to craft the bill, Senate GOP leadership bluntly told members on the fence to vote in favor of it.
“My counsel to them is to gag and vote for it anyway, even if they think it has shortcomings,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Kentucky Republican urged senators to not “let perfection be the enemy of something that will help even a subset of workers.”
“There’s no chance in hell we’re gonna make this bill better in the Senate,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday.
The paid sick leave bill marked the second such stimulus approved by Congress. The first was an $8.3 billion package approved earlier this month that addressed more of the health care needs, like more funding for treatment and vaccine research, facing hospitals and patients around the country.
The consensus among members of both parties on Capitol Hill is that Congress now needs to turn its attention toward another, much broader stimulus package—and fast. The White House is pushing for a third stimulus package worth upwards of $1 trillion, legislation that will seek to further bolster businesses, prop up the travel industry and cut individual checks for Americans.
That proposal is currently being drafted by Senate Republicans in conjunction with the White House. Several GOP lawmakers suggested Wednesday that something concrete could be released as early as Thursday, at which point they will begin to negotiate with Democrats.
Joe Biden’s sweep of primaries last night has given him a decisive and likely insurmountable lead over Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination. And yet, as voters and election officials in Illinois, Florida, and Arizona grappled with confusion, closures, resignations, and low turnout yesterday, Biden’s victories were tarnished by the decision to hold in-person voting in the middle of a global pandemic .
Democratic in-person voter turnout was significantly down from 2016, unsurprising given the circumstances. Yesterday’s vote was mired in controversy before it even began, with Ohio’s Republican governor Mike DeWine declaring a health emergency and postponing the state’s primary to not “force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk,” while Arizona, Florida, and Illinois pressed on with theirs.
As the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths mounted in the United States and across the world, and as cities went into virtual lockdown, voters in these three states were hit with contradictory instructions: they were cheerfully urged to turn out and vote by Democratic officials and the Biden campaign, on the one hand, and on the other, darkly warned to stay home and avoid even moderately sized gatherings of people by federal and state governments, health experts, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This mixed messaging was perhaps no better embodied than by Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker, billionaire and longtime Democratic financier. In the days leading up to the vote, Pritzker ordered all restaurants, bars, and schools closed, banned gatherings of more than fifty people, and publicly pleaded with Illinois residents to “act in the best interest of everyone in this state” and “stay home” in the face of the ballooning crisis.
“Every day that we follow social distancing protocols, we save lives,” he said.
Pritzker then promptly violated his own public health warnings and insisted the election go forward as scheduled, saying it was “the right thing to do,” that he felt “good about the decision,” and that it would be “safe” and would “go on just fine.” He even rejected a March 11 request from the Chicago Board of Elections to cancel in-person voting for fear of health concerns, with Pritzker’s office calling the board’s spokesperson a liar and charging it with “scoring cheap political points.” He then endorsed Biden a day before voting. The next day, the state reported its first death from the virus.
The decision to go ahead with the elections was met with a torrent of criticism. A letter signed by dozens of health professionals warned that “the amount of time standing in line with hundreds or even thousands of other voters substantially increases the likelihood that someone will get sick,” pointing out that, with the primaries lasting until June, “the party has full flexibility to schedule state-level races at any point before then.” Biologist Dr Lucky Tran tweeted she was “deeply disappointed that the DNC is willfully choosing not to listen to scientists during one of the most critical moments in recent history.” The Democratic Party, for its part, appeared committed to only exacerbating the pandemic, fighting the Ohio governor’s decision to postpone voting and threatening states with penalties if they postponed their primaries past June 9.
The spread of the virus only added to the election chaos in the days before Tuesday. All three states saw hundreds of poll workers abandon their posts, and many polling stations close or relocate, over fears of the virus. Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county and home to Phoenix, its biggest city, culled eighty polling locations. This was on top of the more than 20 percent that have closed since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, largely in Maricopa County and in areas with large minority populations. On election day, many polling stations in Florida failed to open thanks to a shortage of staff.
In Chicago, an unprecedented 850 election judges — many of them elderly — had backed out of working on Tuesday, while around 200 polling places in Chicago and suburban Cook County closed down, as well as fifty more in the city at the last minute, resulting in a scramble to find replacement stations and workers. Contradicting all advice from scientists and health professionals, Illinois Democratic Party executive director Mary Morrissey asserted that “going to the polling place is no different” from “going out to small gatherings or going to the grocery store,” and called for anyone “not in that vulnerable age group” to volunteer. (In fact, younger people are still at risk from the virus, and there are growing concerns and evidence that young people not showing symptoms are helping drive its spread.)
All of this — coupled with health fears in a moment when the Trump administration’s botched handling of the crisis threatens to turn the United States into another, bigger Italy — contributed to voters’ heavy use of early voting and voting by mail. Chicago broke a record for mail-in ballot applications set during World War II, while the majority of Arizona Democrats voted early this way, pushing turnout in the state above its 2016 levels, a similar phenomenon as in Florida. Illinois was the exception to the rule, seeing a likely drop in overall turnout, with Chicago in particular seeing what the Board of Elections’ Jim Allen called “extremely low” turnout.
Because mail-in ballots take longer to count, it remains to be seen how their inclusion will affect Biden’s victory margins. One thing is clear, however: for many voters, yesterday was a chaotic ordeal that may have not only suppressed voter turnout, but ultimately accelerated the current health crisis.
Almost as soon as voting began, social media lit up with accounts of voting chaos in the primaries, nowhere more so than in Illinois.
One poll worker live-blogged her experience at a Chicago polling station, where she and her elderly colleagues waited fourteen hours since before 5 a.m. for a blue box of voting supplies that never came. After ten hours, she said, they had turned away at least a hundred eligible voters, including many who were unable to vote at a different time. They were instead forced to send voters to an alternate location, one with an hours-long wait.
Videos and photographs captured long, shoulder-to-shoulder lines and voters crammed into small spaces as they voted. One voter told Sanders campaign staffer Abshir Omar that, in one of these instances, voters had waited two or three hours to vote; some simply left without voting. One couple, one of whom suffered from lung disease, braved the polling booths and traveled to three polling places before they could finally vote.
This was a common story among Chicagoans. Megan, a thirty-nine-year-old nonprofit worker who lives on the city’s south side, woke up to check online if her polling place was still open, only to be repeatedly met with an error message. Deciding to simply go to the polling site, she found it abandoned, with no signs explaining what voters should do. At a different polling site, a man who identified himself as the precinct captain told her that “they won’t let us put signs up.” Ultimately, she voted as an early voter at a police station. Altogether, it took her an hour to finally cast her vote.
Lawson, 31, had a similar experience. Getting up early to vote, he found his polling place, St Sylvester School, shut down with no signs or personnel present, only encountering a sign instructing him where else to go when he returned during his lunch break. Arriving at the new polling location, he was informed that, nearly six hours into the election, they were still waiting for voting supplies to come, and directed to an early voting location forty minutes’ walk away.
“I ended up late to a work meeting, though my boss was understanding,” he says. “But if someone was operating on a thirty-minute break, it might’ve been different.”
Sometimes, initiative and personal sacrifice saved the day. When his building pulled out of serving as a polling location, Lucien, 25, noticing that no signs had been posted instructing voters where else to go, put his own makeshift signs in and around the location. It then took him forty-five minutes to cast his vote at a police station, before signing up to help out at another polling place that was short three polling judges.
“I think the responsible decision would have been, at least in Illinois, to delay the election, or do all mail-in,” he says. “I don’t know how many voters were able to vote.”
But even mail-in ballots could hit a snag. University of Illinois at Chicago graduate student Lindsey, forty, hadn’t been at work since March 9 due to a seasonal cold, so she filed for a vote-by-mail option that very day. But from March 12 onward, her ballot was stuck in a facility in Carol Stream, twenty-seven miles west of the city. With her in-person polling location closed, the nearest one was a five-mile trip on public transit, not an option given the pandemic and her own illness. Told she could still send her ballot as long as it was post-marked by election day, she found the ballot miraculously sitting in her mailbox at 4:30 p.m. — but with only fifteen minutes to travel two miles to a post office that would expose her to more people, she was unable to send it.
“I feel frustrated,” she says. “I really do think that I tried to think ahead.” Lindsey had planned to vote for Sanders, believing that “if we’re seeing anything from the current situation we’re in, we desperately need health care for everyone widely available.”
The sanitary conditions of polling places were a wild card. While a number of voters described safe, responsible management of the conditions in polling places, with social distancing and regular disinfecting of voting machines and other tools, some were far from ideal.
Caitlin, a thirty-two-year-old organizer for the Cook County College Teachers Union, was shocked at what she saw working as a poll watcher in Chicago’s Thirtieth Ward, calling it a “really unsanitary scene.” With nearly 300 people voting at the location over the course of the day, as many as twenty to twenty-five voters were packed into a small room at one point as they waited to cast their ballots, with no hand sanitizer, no cleaning equipment, and pens, clipboards, and screens being shared between people without being cleaned. The poll workers, a number of whom were elderly, weren’t given any equipment; one, an elderly man, brought his own mask, while another wore the same pair of gloves for the entire experience.
“I felt very uncomfortable with the whole thing, considering our governor said we should stay home,” she says. “They shut down sporting events, but for some reason, they thought it was okay for this election to go forward.”
The scene was a stark contrast from the polling place she herself had voted in earlier that morning, she says, which had hand sanitizer and only allowed five or six voters inside at any one time.
Video producer Ryan, 31, was similarly shocked when he turned up at a polling place just before 9 a.m. in a western suburb of Chicago, only to find three poll workers with no gloves, no masks, and no hand sanitizer huddled around an electronic ballot box. It had just arrived, they told him, and it would take them a while to get it up and running.
“I didn’t want to stay around too long because of social distancing,” he says. He wasn’t told where else to go and vote.
Such issues weren’t limited to Illinois. In Phoenix, it took Cassandra, 30, nearly three hours to finally cast her vote, having had to travel to three different polling locations, the last of which was around seven miles away. Once there, she waited for half an hour in a line that made it difficult to practice social distancing, and she had to check in on computers that weren’t being wiped down between uses while elderly poll workers manned the location.
“Luckily, my work is allowing telework,” she says. “Not everyone is able to, obviously.”
Cole, a forty-six-year-old manufacturing technician from Gilbert, Arizona, was turned away at his usual polling place because the machines for verifying voter IDs had broken down. The next closest location was four or five miles away, but when he went to cast his ballot, the machine had run out of battery. He was instead forced to place it in a slot labeled “misread,” which the poll worker assured him would get counted.
“I was really nervous about putting it in, but I didn’t have any choice,” he says.
One silver lining for Cole: while previous years involved one- to two-hour-long waits to vote, this time, there was hardly anyone present. Nonetheless, the whole experience cost him an hour and twenty minutes.
It will likely take weeks at least to know the full ramifications of the decision to continue with Tuesday’s elections. Despite endangering public health, however, the state governments that ignored health experts’ and their own warnings may, in the end, get away with it: the United States’ sluggish rate of testing and the ever-exploding nature of the crisis could mask whatever contribution yesterday’s voting made to the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, we may never know just how many people yesterday’s confusion, chaos, and long lines deterred from casting their votes at all.
As we look back on the bedlam of yesterday, it pays to do a thought experiment. What would we think if the Republican Party ignored the advice of health experts and government officials to hold elections during a deadly pandemic, plausibly leading to the deaths of thousands of Americans? If they forced voters to choose between exercising their democratic rights, and the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones. If they misinformed voters about their health risks, encouraged them to violate the pleas of scientists and health officials, and celebrated afterward. What, indeed?