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2020 Daily Trail Markers: Upcoming primary states urge mail-in or early voting amid coronavirus threat

Sanders stays in race despite losses
Sanders stays in race despite losses 10:58

As campaign events nationwide are being cancelled, Tuesday's primary states have been signaling all week about how their approaches to COVID-19 and keeping the polls running on Election Day. Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio all have vote-by-mail or early vote options, usually framed as way of convenience to avoid long lines and avoid crowds. 

"We weren't mentioning coronavirus specifically but we were strongly implying that that's one way if you wanted to avoid contact or whatever. As of today, we're being much more direct," Illinois State Board of Elections Public Information Officer Matt Dietrich told CBS News political unit broadcast associate Aaron Navarro. 

Arizona has been promoting its curbside voting option, as well as making sure polling sites receive a full cleaning and disinfecting, especially in the 20 voting sites statewide that are in facilities frequented by seniors. 

"We also want to remind voters to make a plan for participating in this election," Arizona Secretary of State Kate Hobbs said. "Today is the last day we recommend people mail back their early ballots, and there are still several other early voting options available for those who want to avoid potential crowds on Election Day." In-person early voting is available in Arizona until Friday, March 13. 

In Florida, vote-by-mail ballots have to be received by no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day. The state also offers early voting in 67 counties until Saturday, March 14 – though officials note some counties may opt to add in more early-voting days. More than 204,000 Democrats have voted early so far. 

"We are working with county supervisors of elections around the clock to guarantee that those votes count and that we ensure fair and accurate elections," said Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee. 

Ohio and Illinois have both been relocating vulnerable polling places, particularly those located at senior living facilities. The new Ohio locations include churches, school gyms and public buildings. The state also said there will be bipartisan teams of county board of elections officials to help seniors at these facilities vote without leaving the facility. In Illinois, the deadline to be sent a vote-by-mail ballot was Thursday. Dietrich said while the idea to extend this deadline was floated Wednesday, the state needed to be able to allow enough time for mail ballots to be returned. 

"If they move the deadline to tomorrow, even on a Friday, it is doubtful that everybody would receive their ballots in time and essentially you'd have people who'd lose their right to vote because they're waiting at home for their ballot to arrive and it never comes," he said. Dietrich said that the state has already seen 12,000 more mail-in ballots returned than in 2016. Some 240,000 were sent out, and 65,000 have already come back this year. Illinois has also seen 272,000 early votes cast so far, more than the 246,000 they saw in 2016. 

"Our message basically is to voters, if you're going to go out and early vote, if you're going to vote on Election Day, use the same kinds of precautions that these health agencies are telling you to use. You know, frequent hand washing, don't touch your face," he said. "Message to voters, if you want to bring your own pen, feel free to do so."

FROM THE CANDIDATES

JOE BIDEN

"The coronavirus does not have a political affiliation. It will infect Republicans and Democrats alike," Joe Biden said, addressing reporters from his native Wilmington, Delaware today. "It will not discriminate based on national origin, race, gender, or zip code. It will touch people in positions of power and the most vulnerable in our society." 

The former vice president, now the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, hoped to telegraph leadership, in contrast with the Trump administration's response to the spreading virus, which has shaken the markets and done little to calm the nation, says CBS News campaign reporter Bo Erickson

"This virus has laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current administration," Biden said, reading from a teleprompter. "Public fears are being compounded by a pervasive lack of trust in this president, fueled by his adversarial relationship with the truth." 

One of the biggest criticisms Biden aimed at the White House was that it had shown a "colossal" failure in planning, leadership, and execution of medical testings. In a detailed new plan, Biden suggested ways the U.S. could be a global leader during this pandemic. He even suggested the Trump administration should take his ideas and implement them immediately. 

Biden's future campaign schedule is uncertain, with almost all public events going forward being taken on a day-by-day, state-by-state basis, according to sources inside the campaign. They've already canceled several events in Ohio, Illinois and Florida, and are currently scheduled to try a "virtual" town hall tomorrow with Illinoisans to spread the message. 

In a memo obtained by CBS News, the Biden campaign leadership instructed its employees to start working from home due to coronavirus, stating, "The health and safety of our staff, supporters, and the general public is our number one priority.

Separately, the Biden campaign named veteran Democratic operative Jen O'Malley Dillon as his campaign manager, report CBS News political correspondent Ed O'Keefe and managing editorial producer Jenna Gibson. O'Malley Dillon previously ran Beto O'Rourke's presidential campaigns. She will take over for Greg Schultz, who, according to a press release from the campaign this afternoon, is set to "turn his focus to organizational planning for the general election and continuing to bolster the campaign's external outreach."   

"I am grateful to Greg for his leadership and hard work to help get our campaign where it is today, and I will value his continued input on this campaign," said Biden. "I am also thrilled that Jen is bringing her considerable talent and insight to this team. She will be a tremendous asset to a campaign that is only growing and getting stronger as we prepare to take the fight to Donald Trump this fall."

O'Malley Dillon was deputy campaign manager for President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign and served as executive director of the Democratic National Committee, responsible for day-to-day operations of the party apparatus. She's also a veteran of multiple mayoral, congressional, Senate and presidential elections. 

The hiring comes as Biden's team prepares to shift its focus to a general election matchup as Biden maintains a hefty lead in the delegate race over Bernie Sanders. A Biden campaign memo late Wednesday said that it expects to win at least 400 more delegates in primaries next Tuesday in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio and hold a lead over Sanders of at least 150 delegates.

Finally a congressional official tells O'Keefe and CBS News producer Rebecca Kaplan the Big Four Congressional leaders were notified today that the Biden campaign has submitted a formal request for Secret Service protection.  Disposition of the matter expected soon." Biden campaign spokesman TJ Ducklo said. "We don't comment on security matters."

BERNIE SANDERS

Bernie Sanders spoke for 15 minutes today in Burlington and did not take questions from the press. CBS News campaign reporter Cara Korte says his wife,Jane Sanders, came into the room after her husband left and told reporters that Sanders plans to stay in D.C. after Sunday's debate to return to work in the Senate and deal with the coronavirus crisis. 

"The American people deserve transparency, something that the current administration has fought day after day to stifle. In other words, we need to know what is happening right now in our country, in our states, and in fact all over the world. If there was ever a time for transparency and honesty and being straightforward, this is that moment. We need that information coming from credible, respected, scientific voices of which we have many in our own country and all over this world, not from politicians," he said. He added that Congress should come together in a bipartisan effort to respond to COVID19. 

Sanders used the address to criticize the Trump administration's response. Sanders called on the president to declare a national state of emergency. He also said he doesn't want the pandemic to make people feel isolated and that any response should be conducted with compassion and love.

He also laid out his own solutions for the pandemic. Some were familiar, such as making a vaccine free, and prohibiting the pharmaceutical industry from drug price gauging. But there were a number of new elements added today, including expanding social programs like meals on wheels, free lunch, and SNAP to take care of the economically vulnerable; building emergency homeless shelters; placing an immediate moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs so that no one loses their home during this crisis.

Medical residents and retired medical professionals should be given full access to treatment centers in order to handle an influx of patients, Sanders suggested. And members of the gig economy should be able to file for unemployment and provide emergency lending to small and medium sized businesses to cover payroll.

Like Biden, Sanders is also instructing his staff to work from home. Communications director, Mike Casca, released a statement Thursday afternoon saying, "In light of concerns about coronavirus and out of an abundance of caution for our staff, volunteers and supporters, the Sanders campaign has asked all staff to work from home and will no longer hold large events or door-to-door canvasses, instead moving to digital formats and outreach wherever possible."

PRESIDENT TRUMP

President Trump's reelection campaign released two statements following the public addresses Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders made on Thursday about handling the coronavirus, reports CBS News political unit associate producer Eleanor Watson. The campaign criticized Sanders for advocating for a government takeover of health care and for not considering closing down the borders to prevent the spread of the virus. After Biden's address, the Trump campaign immediately released a statement saying that America needs leadership like President Trump has demonstrated and Biden is not the leader it needs.

UP FOR DEBATE

CHANGE IN LOCATION

Out of an abundance of caution and in an effort to reduce cross-country travel, the Democratic National Committee announced Thursday that it would be moving the 11th Democratic Presidential Debate scheduled for March 15 to Washington, D.C. CBS News political unit associate producer Sarah Ewall-Wice says it was originally scheduled to take place in Phoenix two days ahead of the state's March 17 primary. 

Also, Univision anchor and moderator Jorge Ramos has decided to step aside from participating in the upcoming debate. His decision came after Ramos disclosed he had been in close proximity with someone who had direct contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. According to the DNC, Ramos and that person are both symptom-free but are not taking any chances. 

Univision News anchor Ilia Calderon will moderate the debate in his place.  "Our number one priority has and will continue to be the safety of our staff, campaigns, and all those involved in the debate," read a statement released by DNC Communications Director Xochitl Hinojosa. On Tuesday, the DNC had already announced it would not have a live debate audience due to health concerns over larger groups of people gathering in close proximity.  Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are expected to be the only candidates qualifying for the upcoming debate.

CONGRESSIONAL COVERAGE

IN THE SENATE

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell canceled the scheduled Senate recess next week to work on bipartisan legislation to combat the coronavirus, reports CBS News political unit associate producer Eleanor Watson. McConnell's decision came after several senators including vulnerable incumbents like Martha McSally of Arizona, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Susan Collins of Maine called for recess to be canceled. 

The House of Representatives is expected to vote on a Coronavirus emergency funding package on Thursday night. McConnell told reporters Thursday afternoon that the Senate would "take a look at whatever they send us." The Senate will respond next week to the potential package since Senators will not be working through the weekend. Senators Pat Toomey, Tom Cotton, Mitt Romney, Maria Cantwell, Ted Cruz, and Sherrod Brown are allowing their staffers to work from home. Senators Ted Cruz, Rick Scott, and Lindsey Graham have announced this week they are self-quarantining after proximity to infected individuals.

PARTY PLANNING

CONVENTION(AL) WISDOM

The chairman of the Democratic National Committee says the party isn't looking into curtailing its July convention in Milwaukee or considering moving the large gathering online instead, reports CBS News political correspondent Ed O'Keefe

"No, we are working with our state and local partners, and I'm confident that we can work a plan that will enable us to have our convention," Perez told "Axios on HBO" for an interview airing Sunday, a portion of which was released today. 

As for a possible online convention, Perez said that would require a rules change and "we're not contemplating rules changes, and I'm very confident that we're going to be able to carry it off." In a statement obtained by CBS News correspondent Nikole Killion, the DNC added, "Ensuring the safety of convention attendees and local residents is—and will always remain—our top priority. Every convention necessitates developing a number of contingency plans to provide for a variety of scenarios. As we prepare to welcome Americans to Milwaukee this summer, the convention team will remain in constant communication with the local, state, and federal authorities responsible for protecting public health and security. We will continue to monitor this developing situation closely and follow the guidance of the CDC and state and local health officials in the days and weeks ahead."  

The Republican National Committee also commented on a potential contingency plan saying, "The convention team is closely monitoring and coordinating with key stakeholders across the administration, HHS and CDC to obtain regular updates. We prioritize the health and safety of attendees and have the utmost confidence in the administration's work and preparations."

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