Amidst the global coronavirus outbreak, voters in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois still headed to the polls on March 17th to vote in the Democratic primary. Together, the three states account for 441 of the 3,979 delegates allocated during the various primaries. Former vice-president Joe Biden, the current frontrunner of the race, was considered the overwhelming favourite in all three states. 

A fourth state, Ohio, was also supposed to hold its primary on Tuesday, on “Super Tuesday III.” However, on Monday, Governor Mike DeWine decided to postpone the primary until June in order to protect the health of voters and poll workers in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even when a county judge declared that his request was not “timely” enough and the primary would have to go on as planned, DeWine still ordered for the polls to be closed.

The effects of the pandemic were also felt in the three states that decided to go ahead with their primary. Bernie Sanders’ campaign decided to forgo get-out-to-vote efforts, writing in a statement that “going to the polls amid the coronavirus outbreak is a personal decision.” Both Biden and Sanders were also not able to hold in-person campaign rallies in the past week, instead holding virtual rallies and town halls. 

However, despite officials urging Americans to practice social distancing due to the coronavirus outbreak, it appears that turnout in Arizona and Florida this year will parallel turnout in the 2016 primary. This is because both states use extensive mail-in voting, meaning people were able to vote from home. In Illinois, where in-person voting is the norm, voter turnout was much lower than in 2016.

In Arizona, with around 88 per cent of precincts reporting as of Wednesday morning, Joe Biden is leading with around 44 per cent of the vote, with Bernie Sanders receiving 32 per cent. Candidates that have dropped out make up for the rest of the vote share, with Michael Bloomberg receiving 10 per cent of the vote so far.

Sanders could close part of the gap with Biden, given that ballots that were mailed on the day of the election have not been counted yet, and young voters (who typically support Sanders) tend to mail their ballots later than older voters. Still, the race was called for Biden soon after polls closed. This was a disappointment for Sanders, who had surely hoped his strength with Hispanic voters in Nevada and California would also translate into a victory here. 

In Florida, the state with the biggest delegate haul of the night, Biden won comfortably with around 62 per cent of the vote, an almost forty-point gap with Sanders, who received 23 per cent of the vote. Impressively, Biden won every county in the state. In fact, this decisive victory by Biden is expected to wipe out any delegate lead over Biden that Sanders had acquired in the primaries he won. 

In Illinois, where Sanders only lost to Hillary Clinton by two per cent in 2016, the campaign was also hoping to upset Biden and squeak out a win. However, like in the two other states, Biden won a decisive victory, with 59 per cent of the vote, as opposed to 36 per cent for Sanders. Biden won all counties in the state except for one. 

Illinois also held primaries for down-ballot races, and Rep. Dan Lipinski became the first incumbent to lose a primary this election cycle. Lipinski, a pro-life Democrat who has voted against Obamacare and doesn’t support gay marriage, was defeated by progressive Marie Newman in a rematch of the 2018 primary. Once Newman or the Republican candidate takes office next January, it will mark the first time since 1982 this district is not represented by Dan Lipinski or by his father, Bill Lipinski. 

The results of Super Tuesday III can allow us to draw two main conclusions. First, Joe Biden is the clear frontrunner of the primary, with Sanders having an extremely narrow path to the nomination. In fact, for Sanders to win the majority of delegates, he will need to win 68 per cent of delegates remaining. However, this could prove impossible for Sanders, who is trailing Biden both in national and state polls. 

The difference in the tone of both candidates was apparent in their speeches last night. Sanders, who spoke early before any significant results had come in, addressed the Congressional response to the coronavirus outbreak rather than the election. In contrast, Biden, who spoke after he had been declared the apparent winner in Florida and Illinois, thanked Sanders and his supporters, and seemed to pivot to the general election. 

The second conclusion is that more will have to be done to guarantee free and fair elections during a pandemic. Already, five states have pushed their primary dates to May and June. However, there is no guarantee the outbreak will have stabilized by then. Therefore, in order to make sure people can actually vote, widespread mail-in voting needs to be implemented in all fifty states, both for the rest of the primary and for the general election in November.

Edited by Catharina O’Donnell.

This article is part of a series on the 2020 United States elections. To see more analysis and opinion on the American presidential and congressional elections, click here. 

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image by Lauren Hill.