Arizona Primary: When Voting During a Pandemic Is a Way to Feel Normal

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PHOENIX — Supermarket shelves are barren. Schools are closing across the country. But in Arizona, many Democrats are hoping that voting in the presidential primary provides a slice of normalcy at a time that is anything but normal.

“I want to believe that voting takes away some of the fear,” said Dawn Schumann, the political director for the Arizona Teamsters. “The fear is taking a lot out of all of us.”

In dozens of interviews at polling places across the state this weekend, where early voting was underway, residents said voting felt like both an act of faith and defiance, even as other states were considering whether to move forward.

By Monday, three states — Louisiana, Georgia and Ohio — had postponed or moved to postpone their primary elections, with more likely to follow. But Arizona was still set to hold its election on Tuesday as planned. State and local officials said they would make disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer available at polling places, and they encouraged those who could to vote by mail.

The 8,000 members of Ms. Schumann’s union, Teamsters Local 104, include airline workers and delivery workers, people who could be among the most at risk for contracting the coronavirus. But she said they were anticipating the primary.

“They interact with a lot of people — they touch everything globally,” Ms. Schumann said. “I have no doubt many of them are eager to vote, maybe even more eager.”

When Stephanie Ringler, 49, and David Devenport, 62, came to cast their ballots at the Burton Barr Public Library, near downtown Phoenix, on Friday afternoon, they had the future on their minds. But they vacillated between thinking of a time when the nation would go “back to normal” and wondering aloud, “What is normal now?”

“We need an adult in the White House, first and foremost,” Ms. Ringler said. “We need a functioning cabinet who listens to common sense, who listens to science.”

They said they had watched with dismay as the crisis mounted in recent days, and expressed confusion about President Trump’s comments on the virus.

“I am deeply worried about how unprepared we are for this,” Mr. Devenport said, while adding that he had found inspiration among his friends.

He said he felt as if they were looking out for one another in new ways, such as texting when they are out shopping to ask, “Can I pick anything up for you?”

Voting, he said, is a kind of extension of that community, a way he could act when so many feel helpless. As voters, they could practice social distancing even as they attempted to knit society back together.

“We don’t have enough people out there talking the truth and speaking about reality,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to be this way.”

Sara Miller, 53, a teacher at a Catholic school, had gone to a Costco in Phoenix on Friday morning to try to buy food for a weekend dinner party. She walked out empty-handed after she saw the lines and the picked-over aisles.

“What we’re seeing now is mob mentality and someone needs to talk us out of that, get us out of that kind of thinking of every man for himself,” said Ms. Miller, a lifelong Democrat who mailed in her ballot for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. last week, in large part because she liked his demeanor.

“We all want things that we know, that are familiar. We just really need calm,” she said. “We all have to remember we’re in this together. Do we have someone to remind us?”

Arizona is one of a handful of states both Republicans and Democrats believe will be competitive in the general election, and both Mr. Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had campaigned there before the outbreak.

While Mr. Sanders has so far performed well in the West, particularly in states with large Latino populations, polls in Arizona indicate he is facing an uphill climb here.

The vast majority of voters interviewed said they preferred Mr. Biden precisely because he was a familiar presence who they believed could win over moderates here and in other parts of the country.

“Absolutely nothing is the same — but where do we go with our worries?” said Lorraine Frias, 51, a nonprofit fund-raiser who voted with her husband in Mesa on Friday afternoon.

The couple was undecided for weeks, but landed on Mr. Biden after he won a string of primaries on Super Tuesday.

“We want someone who will not overpromise, who will be honest,” she said. “But so much is changing so fast, I don’t even know what we need to do.”

Even some supporters of Mr. Sanders believe that those who are most likely to vote for him are less likely to cast a ballot as the panic over the coronavirus spreads. Many of his backers are working-class voters who may be most acutely concerned about receiving health care or collecting their paycheck as the pandemic continues to shut down businesses, especially in service industries.

Strip mall parking lots in and around Phoenix were full over the weekend, but polling sites were far from it. Dozens of people shopping said they had no intention to vote in the Democratic primary or the November election.

At the voting center in the municipal building of Surprise, a suburban community about 30 miles northwest of Phoenix, fewer than 10 voters showed up over three hours Saturday morning.

Still, deep dissatisfaction with Mr. Trump was driving some voters to the polls.

Steve Brown, 69, who moved from Oregon after retiring as an insurance executive, described himself as “anti-Trump since the day he came down the escalator.”

While he said he did not feel worried about his own health, he was “very anxious” that the president’s leadership would mean the virus would “spiral further out of control.”

“Voting is always an obligation, but even more so now, when what we have is just terrifying,” said Mr. Brown, who along with his wife voted for Mr. Biden.

“Biden will pick the right people to be around him,” Mr. Brown said. “You can look to him like he knows where this is going.”

But, Mr. Brown added: “I’m kind of worried about his age. I know I was sharper at 60 than I am now.”

For Alfredo Lopez, a 38-year-old engineer who brought both his wife and his father with him to vote just before the polls closed in Mesa on Friday, the global health crisis was one more reason to support “Medicare for all,” a centerpiece of Mr. Sanders’s campaign.

“This is really showing us the need for a health care system that works for everybody,” Mr. Lopez said, adding that it was clear to him that many people would be unable to gain access to care or medication. “There’s going to be a peak, and the question is if we are ready for it.”

Moments after she cast her ballot in Mesa, Carol Lopez, 40, said she was particularly disturbed that the information coming from the president seemed to contradict advice from medical experts.

“People are getting bad information from the person in charge,” she said. “Right now the people who are in charge can’t be trusted.”

Arizona Democratic Party officials said that there had been “huge turnout” from early mail-in ballots, with 375,000 returned so far, and that the number of voters could easily surpass the 2016 primary.

“We’re pressing forward,” Adrian Fontes, the Maricopa County recorder, who oversees elections in Phoenix and the surrounding suburbs, where the vast majority of registered Democrats in the state live, said Sunday night.

Last week, he expressed blustery confidence in the system, saying it was “as calm as it can be.”

“We’re prepared for everything,” he said. “Except Godzilla.”