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Florida Backs Biden As Voters Contend With Coronavirus Fallout

Florida voters went to the polls Tuesday despite escalating impacts from coronavirus, while across the country in Ohio, the primary election was postponed at the direction of the state's top health officer.

Former Vice President Joe Biden soundly defeated Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. With 99 percent of the votes counted, Biden had 62 percent to Sanders' 23 percent. Florida has 219 delegates at stake in the Democratic primary.

Incumbent President Donald Trump, as expected, had little challenge from his three rivals on the ballot, winning 94 percent of the votes from Florida Republicans.

Poll monitors with Common Cause, a national nonpartisan grassroots organization, reported low voter turnout across the state.

“We're getting pictures of very light voting or no voters in line at all across the state,” said Liz McClenaghan, chair of the organization’s Florida chapter, said during a press call Tuesday.

Polls were open at the Glad Tidings Tabernacle Church in Key West Tuesday.
Credit Mark Hedden / markhedden.com
Polls were open at the Glad Tidings Tabernacle Church in Key West Tuesday.

Polling locations in Palm Beach County experienced hundreds of no-shows and low staff due to the coronavirus.

“Prior to this, many poll workers had notified the Supervisor of Elections that they would not be available, but these are individuals who up until yesterday had indicated they would be there,” McClenaghan said. She added that some no-show poll workers had the keys to polling sites, which remained closed as polls opened elsewhere. Others had keys to the voting equipment, so polling places could open, but no ballots could be cast, and voters were directed to other sites.

That caused confusion.

William Donahue from Delray Beach said he showed up at 7:30 a.m.

"They were still setting up the signs, they were still setting up the polling booths. I walked in and was told that the clerk wasn’t there yet, they would probably be getting there at a little after 8," he said.

Donahue said poll workers had no information about whether or not they could vote in other locations.

Read more: Listeners Weigh In As South Florida Votes During COVID-19

Ward Parker from Boynton Beach had a similar experience.

"There were a few volunteers there, but the voting equipment was supposedly locked up and whoever was in charge hadn’t shown up," he said. "I returned at 10:45 and the polling place was still not open." 

According to the Palm Beach Post, about 800 poll workers called in sick on Sunday night because of coronavirus concerns. 

Donahue said primaries should have been delayed.

"It's just a shame because there are certainly a lot of people, especially in a state with this many retired people as Florida, who won’t be able to make it to the polling locations," he said..

Palm Beach County is also having several municipal elections.

Boca Raton resident Cristina Suarez said she was lucky to vote early by mail but better communication was needed.

"Frankly, the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections could have done a better job in informing the citizens of the polling places," she said. "They could have informed us as well as what types of precautions they were taking to keep their volunteers safe as well as the voters."

Palm Beach County’s Supervisor of Elections posted an update on Twitter Tuesday morning about where to pick up ballots.

Tuesday afternoon — hours after polling locations opened to the public — Supervisor Wendy Link posted updates on Twitter about precincts that were moved.

Miami-Dade Rejects Sanders

Miami-Dade County, where the bulk of the state’s Cuban-American population lives, was a runaway victory for Biden, with the former Vice President winning nearly 60 percent of the votes to Sanders’ 21 percent, with just under half precincts reporting.

Sanders drew outrage from this corner of South Florida for touting the results of a literacy campaign mounted by former Cuban President Fidel Castro after he took power in the Cuban Revolution.

The outroar prompted Democratic leaders in Miami-Dade to publicly denounce the statement.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala called the comments “ill-informed and insulting.” Her Democratic colleague Debbie Mucarsel-Powell called the comments “absolutely unacceptable.

“The Castro regime murdered and jailed dissidents, and caused unspeakable harm to too many South Florida families," she said.

Democratic leaders across the state followed South Florida's lead in speaking out against Sanders’ comments, resulting in what will likely be looked upon as the moment his promising campaign found a problem it couldn’t overcome.

Within days of the statement, virtually the entire Democratic Party apparatus had coalesced around Joe Biden as a unity candidate. The Sanders campaign faced blows in other states, but his loss in Florida could prove to be the end of the road.

Precincts for the only two municipal elections in Miami-Dade County — both in Surfside — have not yet been counted.

Broward Backs Biden

Broward County voters overwhelmingly supported Biden as their preferred Democratic presidential candidate. Biden won more than 67 percent of the votes, while Sanders took home just under 20 percent in the county.

"When faced with a choice between structural change or political change, a lot of Democrats are choosing political change," Charles Zelden, a history and political science professor at Nova Southeastern University, told WLRN by phone on Tuesday. 

"And the Coronavirus only adds to that sense that what we need is to get somebody in who is going to be [an] effective leader. In the middle of a crisis you don't try and redo the carpets, you put out the fire," he said. 

The Broward County Supervisor of Elections reported turnout of around 25 percent, just below turnout levels in 2016. While the coronavirus did keep some voters who called WLRN away from the polls, the vast majority of votes in Broward County were cast during early voting, before election day. 

A polling place in Hollywood. Broward County, which leads the state in confirmed cases of COVID-19, backed former Vice President Joe Biden.
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN
A polling place in Hollywood. Broward County, which leads the state in confirmed cases of COVID-19, backed former Vice President Joe Biden.

Local races took place in four municipalities and in one county commission district: Lauderdale-by-the-Sea selected Chris Vincent as the town's next mayor with more than 73 percent of the vote. 

Lighthouse Point selected Glenn Troast as the city's next mayor by a similar margin, just under 70 percent of the votes. 

Pembroke Pines had two municipal elections: Frank C. Ortis will be the new city mayor, with 55 percent of the votes.

Voters also chose Jay D. Schwartz to be the next Commissioner for District 2, with just under 60 percent of the vote. 

Pompano Beach voters had to decide on three proposed amendments to the city charter, which would have changed the election timeframe, extended terms for city commissioners to four years instead of two, and staggered the years in which commissioners from different districts are elected: all three were soundly rejected with less than 40 percent support. 

Monroe County Goes For Biden, Approves School Tax

Monroe County results mirrored the rest of the state. Biden had 60 percent of the vote, compared to Sanders' 23 percent.

And Keys voters overwhelmingly approved the renewal of a property tax that raises $15 million a year for teacher salaries and other school operations—82 to 18 percent.

Palm Beach Votes Local (And For Biden)

Palm Beach County held several municipal elections throughout the region on Tuesday night's presidential primary election

Former Vice President Joe Biden led with the majority of votes in Palm Beach County and won the majority of Democratic votes in the county.

In Boca Raton, Mayor Scott Singer was re-elected with the majority of votes. The other mayor seat on the ballot was for Palm Beach Shores, where Alan Fiers won against Myra Koutzen.

In Boynton Beach, Woodrow Hay won the Commission 2 seat. Ty Penserga won the Commission 4 seat. Delray Beach also had commission seats on the ballot. Juli Casale won for Commission 2, and Shirley Johnson won for Commission 4. In West Palm Beach, Commission 1 seats went to Kelly Shoaf and Christina D'Elosua.

'Voting Was An Anchor'

Lots of Florida voters had already cast their ballots, either by mail or in early voting locations.

Marilyn En said she voted early, as uncertainty about the coronavirus was ramping up last week.

"I was glad I took advantage of that great privilege we have, as citizens," she said. "It provided me hope in the face of everything that we're going through. In the face of uncertainty. In the face of chaos, voting was an anchor."

Some decided against going to the polls Tuesday, like Karene McCalla of Miami.

"I regret not participating in early voting. I really do want to participate with the primaries," she said.

But "I live with family who are over the age of 65 and one who is also immunocompromised, being a heart transplant recipient," she said. "Therefore, I really cannot risk being a carrier or catching anything and bringing it into the household. It's a really tough decision for me, but our health is of utmost importance."

The increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases in Florida, with Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties leading the state, overshadowed the showdown between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the last two viable candidates for the Democratic nomination for president.

For some, the chaos of the coronavirus and the Trump administration's response made them feel voting was even more important.

"I felt some ambivalence about voting," said Arlo Haskell of Key West. "On the other hand, we are going to need a healthy, functioning democracy to pull ourselves out of this mess. I felt like I wanted to add my vote to the tally of people voting for change."

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Polls were open across Florida Tuesday, despite the coronavirus crisis.
Mark Hedden / markhedden.com
Polls were open across Florida Tuesday, despite the coronavirus crisis.

Caitie Switalski is a rising senior at the University of Florida. She's worked for WFSU-FM in Tallahassee as an intern and reporter. When she's in Gainesville for school, Caitie is an anchor and producer for local Morning Edition content at WUFT-FM, as well as a digital editor for the station's website. Her favorite stories are politically driven, about how politicians, laws and policies effect local communities. Once she graduates with a dual degree in Journalism and English,Caitiehopes to make a career continuing to report and produce for NPR stations in the sunshine state. When she's not following what's happening with changing laws, you can catchCaitielounging in local coffee shops, at the beach, or watching Love Actually for the hundredth time.
Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.
During her time at Florida International University, where she recently graduated from with a Bachelors in Journalism, Sherrilyn Cabrera interned for the South Florida News Service - a digital journalism platform where stories are written, shot and edited by FIU students. As part of her senior project, she reported on the influx of Puerto Ricans who migrated to Florida after Hurricane Maria, and the impact it could have had on the November 2018 midterm elections.
Alejandra Martinez is the associate producer for WLRN&rsquo's Sundial. Her love for radio started at her mother’s beauty shop where she noticed that stories are all around her - important stories to tell.
Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.