Voting in major cities was rife with confusion and early turnout in many areas was significantly lower than expected as Florida, Illinois and Arizona held their Democratic presidential primaries on Tuesday amid fears about people gathering in groups and putting themselves at risk of coronavirus transmission.
But election officials in the three states hoped that any drop-off in turnout would be partially offset, at least, by early voting and the vote-by-mail ballots that many Democrats filed in the weeks leading up to Tuesday.
Ohio also had a presidential primary scheduled for Tuesday, but Gov. Mike DeWine postponed it through a flurry of legal actions and declarations on Monday night, recommending that it be pushed to June 2. Voters who weren’t aware of the late-night decision by the governor and the state’s top health official were greeted Tuesday morning with closed doors and statements taped to windows saying the primary had been postponed.
“This is a gathering of people, and what we’ve tried to do is explain to Ohioans we cannot have large gatherings,” Mr. DeWine said in an interview on ABC’s “The View” on Tuesday. “And so that is a problem.”
Tuesday’s remaining elections, now with 441 delegates to be awarded, come as the Democratic field has winnowed to just two major candidates, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders. With polls showing Mr. Biden ahead in all three states, the results in Arizona, Florida and Illinois could give Mr. Biden a sizable delegate lead and put more pressure on Mr. Sanders to step aside.
Early Tuesday morning, officials in Florida and Illinois indicated that they were seeing signs of light turnout in polling places stocked with hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and poll workers with protective masks.
In Chicago, in-person voting was far below normal levels, according to multiple officials from the city.
Clem Balanoff, a former Cook County elections director who is an adviser to the Sanders campaign in Illinois, said many precincts had seen single-digit numbers of voters in the first two hours polls were open Tuesday, a paltry number that reflects widespread fears about the coronavirus.
“Nobody’s voting,” Mr. Balanoff said. “They had a bigger than normal early voting and absentee voting, but it certainly looks like it’s going to be a really, really slow day.”
Marty Quinn, a Chicago city alderman who represents a district on the city’s Southwest Side near Midway International Airport, pointed to record numbers of early and mail-in voters. But he said that turnout at polling places was low. “What’s happening right now at the polls, it’s very slow,” Mr. Quinn said. “We’ll see if that picks up between 4 and 7 today. That will be the indicator and the contributing factor.”
Outside Chicago, turnout in Illinois was far lower than had been anticipated just days earlier. In Peoria, early voting numbers were up about 40 percent compared to 2016 figures, according to Tom Bride, the executive director of the Peoria County Election Commission. But Primary Day turnout has not kept up the pace.
“It’s off-year election kind of slow,” Mr. Bride said. He projected Peoria County’s turnout might reach about 17 percent of registered voters, down from 43 percent in 2016 when both parties had competitive presidential contests.
In Florida’s Palm Beach County, hundreds of volunteer poll workers told officials they could not show up on Tuesday, forcing the county to open some locations late and move other ones.
“We have experienced Poll Worker no-shows causing some of our polling locations to open late,” wrote Wendy Sartory Link, the county supervisor of elections, on Facebook mid-Tuesday morning. She added that several polling locations would have to be moved, and encouraged voters to pick up a ballot from any of the county’s four elections offices.
In Miami-Dade County, about 8 percent of the expected 4,800 poll workers did not show up on Tuesday morning, according to Suzy Trutie, spokeswoman for the county elections supervisor. “Given the light election turnout,” she said, “we are confident we are properly staffed to receive voters.”
Other counties in Florida were showing signs that overall turnout — including voting by mail — was on track to surpass Democratic primary turnout from 2016. In Pinellas County, more than 104,000 registered Democrats had already cast ballots, including 16,000 who voted on Tuesday morning, putting the county within striking distance of the nearly 106,000 votes cast in the 2016 Democratic primary with hours of voting still to come.
Even as officials in all three states conceded that turnout at physical polling places was likely to be lower on Tuesday, each state pointed to higher than normal early voting and voting by mail as indications that overall turnout could even surpass 2016 levels.
In Arizona, more than 380,000 Democrats have already cast their ballots in the primary. In 2016, the total turnout for the Democratic primary there was just over 455,000.
Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its sprawling suburbs, exceeded its turnout from the 2016 Democratic presidential primary on early and mail-in voting alone, before officials counted any ballots dropped off or cast on Tuesday, said Adrian Fontes, the Maricopa County recorder.
About 3,500 ballots were cast in the county during the first hour voting was open, a pace that has continued through the morning, Mr. Fontes said.
A large number of Floridians have also voted early or cast ballots by mail, according to state data. The Florida Department of State reported Monday evening that more than 630,000 Democrats had voted by mail and more than 430,000 Democrats had taken advantage of early voting.
Both the vote-by-mail and early-voting tallies were up significantly from the 2016 Democratic primary, when total turnout was around 1.7 million.
Illinois officials have been pushing early voting for the past two weeks to reduce Primary Day crowds. Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the state elections board, said it would “undoubtedly set new records for early and mail voting for a primary election.”
The Illinois Democratic Party said that as of Sunday, nearly 300,000 Illinoisans had voted early or by mail. Mary Morrissey, the party’s executive director, said she expected the final number to exceed the 350,000 such votes cast in 2016.
As Ohio shuttered its polls on Tuesday, other states began to follow suit. Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said Tuesday that he was postponing his state’s presidential primary to June 2, from April 28.
“Like other states have done, all the primary elections will be postponed until June which gives everyone time to prepare,” Mr. Hogan said.
Maggie Astor, Nate Cohn and Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.