Deadly tornadoes knocked out polling places in Tennessee while fears over the coronavirus left some polling places in California and Texas short of election workers as Super Tuesday voting opened around the country.
Scattered reports of polling places opening late, machines malfunctioning or voter rolls being down marred voting in some of the 14 states voting Tuesday, but there were no reports of voters being unable to cast a ballot or security breaches.
Just hours before polls were set to open in Tennessee, tornadoes tore through parts of the state, destroying at least 140 buildings and killing at least 22 people. With more than a dozen polling sites in Nashville’s Davidson County damaged, voters were sent to other locations, where some of them encountered long lines. Voting rights groups urged state officials to extend voting hours.
Voting got off to a slow start in Travis County, Texas, because many election workers did not show up, with some citing fears of contracting the coronavirus, according to the county clerk’s office. The election office says it began implementing emergency procedures, with elections staff and other employees filling in as poll workers.
Another county, in California, addressed concerns over the coronavirus by sending bottles of hand sanitizer to polling places and asking poll workers to post fliers from the public health department on how to avoid spreading the virus.
Jesse Salinas, the chief elections official in Yolo County, just west of Sacramento, said a few poll workers backed out over concerns of getting the virus, but said most understand the threat is relatively low. The county had no reported cases as of Monday morning.
“We are hoping people remain calm and still participate in the election process,” Salinas said.
Super Tuesday marked the first major security test since the 2018 midterm elections, with state and local election officials saying they are prepared to deal with everything from equipment problems to false information about the coronavirus.
States have been racing to shore up cybersecurity defenses, replace aging and vulnerable voting equipment, and train for worst-case scenarios since it became clear that Russia had launched a sweeping and systematic effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. U.S. officials said they were on alert and ready to respond to any efforts to disrupt the 2020 elections.
In 2016, the Russians weaponized social media to sow discord among Americans, scanned state and local election systems for cyber vulnerabilities, and deployed the targeted release of stolen campaign emails and documents.
U.S. intelligence chiefs have warned that foreign interference remains a threat for the 2020 election. And the recent outbreak of a new virus could present a bad actor with an opening to spread false information to keep voters away from the polls.
The national agency that oversees election security said Tuesday it had not detected any notable uptick in either misinformation by foreign nations or targeted attacks on voting equipment during the first hours of voting across the country.
Misinformation campaigns by Russian operatives and others are ongoing but there hasn’t been “any appreciable increase in activity,” as voters go to the polls for Super Tuesday, senior officials with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency told reporters.
Likewise, the officials said, phishing and other probes aimed at campaigns and local governments are a constant fact of life, but there has not been a notable uptick.
“We don’t have any information, any intelligence, of targeted attacks or probing of election systems, elections voting machines or anything of that nature,” said a CISA official.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to brief journalists about ongoing election monitoring activity.
The agency says it has taken steps since the 2016 elections to improve overall security and develop better coordination with state and local election officials, and it praised authorities in Tennessee for quickly making contingency plans to help voters in areas devastated by the severe weather in that state.
In that state, election officials scrambled to make sure people could still cast their ballots. Nashville Mayor John Cooper said alternate sites were arranged for 15 polling places out of the 169 precincts in Nashville’s combined city-county area.
“The likelihood of you being able to vote regularly at your home precinct is very great,” Cooper said at Tuesday’s news conference.
Davidson County Administrator of Elections Jeff Thomas said voters from anywhere in the county can go to two so-called “supersites” to cast their ballots. The route to those sites is a main thoroughfare that’s not closed due to damage, he said.
Thomas also warned that it may take longer than normal to count the votes as poll workers taking vote totals from individual precincts to the central office would have to navigate closed roads and other hazards.
Some polling sites in Nashville and in Davidson and Wilson counties opened an hour late but were still set to close at 8 p.m. EST as scheduled, Secretary of State Tre Hargett said. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law called on Tennessee officials to extend primary election voting in certain parts of Tennessee affected by the storms.
“Given the devastation and loss of life, we urge you to immediately extend voting in the primaries through at least the end of the week to provide voters a fair opportunity to access the polls,” Lawyers’ Committee president and executive director Kristen Clarke said in a letter to the governor, secretary of state and elections coordinator.
Some people have lost their homes, emergency officials have told people to stay off the roads and there has been confusion about where people can vote, she argued.
In rural central Alabama, high winds howled and the National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for multiple counties Tuesday morning. In rural Bibb County, southwest of Birmingham, as poll workers were getting ready to open a polling place in a senior center, cellphone alerts began going off with a tornado warning about 6:45 a.m., said volunteer Gwen Thompson.
The storm knocked out electricity, she said, but the precinct’s two electronic voting machines had battery backups and a few people had cast ballots less than an hour later.
“We’re voting by flashlight,” Thompson said.
While Tennessee’s primary results may be delayed because of the aftermath of the storms, other states will likely also see delays.
California is a heavy absentee/mailed ballots state, so most people will either mail or drop off their ballots at a local voting center. Election officials have been warning the public not to expect complete unofficial results on Tuesday night, and that results could fluctuate as ballots come in and are counted over several days. Ballots postmarked on primary day will be counted as long as they are received within three days. Election officials have up to 30 days to certify the official count.
Meanwhile, a new publicly owned computerized voting system — the first of its kind in the nation — will face a crucial test in Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest elections jurisdiction with 5.4 million registered voters.
Cassidy reported from Atlanta.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Boston, Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, Jake Bleiberg in Dallas, Kate Brumback in Atlanta, Ben Fox and Eric Tucker in Washington, D.C., Jonathan Mattise in Nashville and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, and contributed to this report.