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caption: Volunteers for the Bernie Sanders campaign met with field director Shaun Scott, center, before heading out from Gasworks Park on Sunday.
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Volunteers for the Bernie Sanders campaign met with field director Shaun Scott, center, before heading out from Gasworks Park on Sunday.
Credit: KUOW/Amy Radil

Coronavirus outbreak means dilemmas for campaigns days ahead of WA primary

As Washington's presidential primary approaches on Tuesday, the state faces a growing coronavirus outbreak.

The public health emergency has generated a number of concerns for campaigns and election workers. But it’s also highlighted the benefits of the state’s mail-in ballots.

Polls suggest a close race between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in Washington State’s Democratic primary. Sanders field director Shaun Scott said their campaign continued door-to-door canvassing this past weekend, despite the coronavirus outbreak here.

“There’s never good timing for a global health pandemic, and with us, we certainly had concerns about what that was going to do to our goal of knocking on 60,000 doors," he said. But Scott said they surpassed their own estimates for volunteer turnout. About fifty mostly younger Sanders supporters gathered Sunday morning to begin canvassing from Seattle’s Gasworks Park.

Preschool teacher Leah Dale said she’s paying attention to the public health advisories about “social distancing,” but so far people have been welcoming when she knocks.

“I haven’t shown any symptoms," Dale said. "If I had shown symptoms then I definitely would stay home, I wouldn’t be out canvassing. But I just think it’s really important that we hit the last doors before Tuesday.”

caption: Gloves are mandatory for King County elections staff like Dunia Wabenga, right.
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Gloves are mandatory for King County elections staff like Dunia Wabenga, right.
Credit: KUOW/Amy Radil

The Sanders campaign has continued its efforts to get out the vote, but on Monday cancelled its primary night party. The Biden campaign said given experts’ recommendations, the campaign will seek to engage with voters remotely, but is not doing any in-person canvassing or events, and will not hold a primary night gathering.

Sanders’ field director Shaun Scott said he hadn’t seen much sign of the Biden campaign in Washington even before the outbreak.

“It’s kind of hard for me to validate the idea that events are being cancelled or grassroots events are not being held as a result of this very serious health crisis, when the reality is, we didn’t see those events happening before,” he said.

Public health experts are advising people to work remotely if possible and avoid large gatherings. While no official mandates have come down from the state in that regard, Gov. Jay Inslee hinted during a Sunday morning appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation" that such action could be coming.

But Washington state's absentee voting has quelled some concern about the primary's potential to exacerbate the spread of coronavirus.

“We are more happy than ever that we are a vote-by-mail state,” said Kendall Hodson, chief of staff for elections in King County. "That means no polling places or lines where the virus could be spread. “By and large, that’s one of the biggest things we have going for us."

King County currently has 83 confirmed cases of coronavirus — the most in the state. Hodson said officials' biggest concern right now is the potential transmission of the disease between the dozens of permanent and temporary employees processing ballots at the elections office in Renton.

“Of course we also can’t work remotely,” Hodson said. “Ballot processing is a very physical, in-person activity so we’ve got all of our teams still here, but we are taking a number of precautions.”

Those measures include handwashing and mandatory latex gloves for the county’s 150 temporary elections workers who help process the ballots.

caption: King County Elections has hired up to 150 temporary staff to process ballots. Jane Reese, left, says they're taking precautions to prevent virus transmission.
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King County Elections has hired up to 150 temporary staff to process ballots. Jane Reese, left, says they're taking precautions to prevent virus transmission.
Credit: KUOW/Amy Radil

“We don’t know what’s going to come out of these ballots!” said Jan Reese, who's has been helping with elections for the past twelve years. “So you know, you gotta protect yourself. We use sanitizing all the time, we go to break, we wash our hands, you know, sing a little A-B-C song so you get the backs….”

It’s the type of public health advice that is everywhere these days.

Hodson said there was a fear that people could spread the virus by licking their ballot envelopes, but public health officials have said not to worry about that.

“They were not concerned about that at this time,” Hodson said. “So they are not recommending against that, said it’s perfectly fine, and said our staff here should feel comfortable and safe handling ballots -- but should be wearing gloves.”

The main concern is people spreading the virus by being close to one another. Hodson said that so far, they haven’t seen more workers calling in sick. And she said people are trained in various duties so they can fill in for one another. They’ll announce the initial tally in Washington’s presidential primary on Tuesday just after 8 p.m. on Tuesday.