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A woman elbow bump with the election worker ahead of casting her vote during the Florida primary election at Miami Beach Fire Rescue Station 3 in Miami, on March 17, 2020. (Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

A woman elbow bump with the election worker ahead of casting her vote during the Florida primary election at Miami Beach Fire Rescue Station 3 in Miami, on March 17, 2020. (Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Media Silent as Poll Workers Contract Covid-19 at Primaries That DNC, Biden Campaign Claimed Were Safe

Why have media that have rightly taken Trump and his administration to task for their fatal failures not done the same with Democratic leadership?

Donald Trump is the single individual in US society most responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation about Covid-19 in the midst of a global pandemic. Anyone who echoes him, or his administration’s entreaties to not take going out in public too seriously, is engaging in public endangerment. Anyone who actively encourages people to gather in mass, and in close proximity, is doing so at a mass scale.

So why, in contravention of CDC guidelines and health experts’ urgings, did the DNC and Joe Biden’s campaign do just that at immense scale earlier this month, as major cities were already closing up public spaces?  And why have media that have deservedly taken Trump and his administration to task for their fatal failures not done the same with Democratic leadership?

If  a senior adviser to President Donald Trump falsely claimed on national television that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had declared that it was safe to vote in person, despite its actual recommendation to the contrary, the adviser and the president would be rightly condemned by much of corporate media as, at best, incompetent and ignorant, and, at worst, dishonest and reckless in encouraging people to put their lives at risk.

Anderson Cooper asks Bernie Sanders (CNN, 3/15/20): “Should there by a primary on Tuesday?”

And if poll workers had contracted Covid-19 at locations which violated CDC recommendations, the adviser and the president would be rightly blamed for exposing them to the virus.

Yet after the CDC on March 15 advised the public to cancel all gatherings of more than 50 people, a senior adviser to Joe Biden, the current frontrunning Democratic presidential candidate, went on CNN (3/15/20) and claimed the CDC had deemed in-person voting safe. And not a single major media outlet reported on it.

Nor did they report on the actual dangerous conditions at multiple primary voting sites, and the exposure of trusting citizens to the coronavirus that the adviser’s reckless advice had encouraged. And it wasn’t just one irresponsible adviser that put people at risk: Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez made misleading statements, downplayed the dangers and exaggerated the preparedness of voting sites, and criticized and threatened states which wanted to postpone their primaries. The Biden campaign as well as the DNC put politics over people, exposing countless voters to a fatal virus.

We now know that at least two poll workers at locations described as safe by Perez and the Biden campaign have contracted Covid-19. It’s unknown how many more poll workers, voters and the people they came into contact with will also contract the virus

Senior Biden campaign adviser Symone Sanders made the dishonest statements during a post-debate interview on Sunday night, March 15. This was hours after the CDC released a statement (3/15/20) that advised canceling all gatherings of 50 or more people. The CDC advisory was mentioned at the very beginning of the debate, and also during Anderson Cooper’s post-debate interview with Bernie Sanders. When Cooper asked the Vermont senator, “Should there be a primary on Tuesday” in light of the CDC’s recommendation, Bernie Sanders responded:

That is a very good question, and as you know, Louisiana and Georgia and Puerto Rico have delayed their elections. Postponed them, they’ve got dates in the future. Look, election dates are very, very important. We don’t want to be getting into the habit of messing around with them. But you remember, and I just researched this, 9/11, you know there was a primary in New York City…. And it was canceled, for obvious reasons, in New York City, and it was rescheduled two weeks later.

I would hope the governors listen to the public health experts, and they’re saying … we don’t want gatherings of 50 or more people. And when I think about some of the elderly people sitting behind the desks, registering people and all that, does that make a lot of sense? I’m not sure that it does.

CNN’s Chris Cuomo referred to the CDC update, as well as to Bernie Sanders’ response to it during his interview with Symone Sanders, asking her:

CDC says no groupings bigger than 50, that’s like every polling station except in very small counties. The idea of delaying primaries, Senator Sanders seemed comfortable with that; we should listen to what the CDC says. We should delay the primaries if we have to. What are your concerns?


Unlike Bernie Sanders, however, Symone Sanders’ chief concern seemed to be making sure that the primaries were not postponed:

Our democracy is extremely important. Even in times of strife in this country, we have to do our duty. So the CDC and folks have said it’s safe out there for Tuesday. So I don’t know what Senator Sanders was talking about…. So I encourage people to get out there and vote on Tuesday.

Symone Sanders openly stated that Bernie Sanders’ public health concern was unfounded, even though Bernie Sanders had cited the CDC’s recommendation that gatherings of 50 people or more were unsafe—which, as Cuomo pointed out, would include voting at almost every polling station. Yet Biden’s senior adviser asserted that the CDC had assured the public that the elections were safe, urging people to vote based on a false promise of safety.

While Bernie Sanders had mentioned that some states had already postponed their primaries, and hoped that other governors would follow the CDC guidelines, Symone Sanders pointed to the governors who had not:

Governors across the country, Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, they have said that they feel comfortable, and are confident that not only will the elections be safe, but that they can carry them out. So I am looking to these governors… to abide by the CDC guidance, and if they say that they can administer this process, we believe them.

She went on to name one governor in particular: “Governor DeWine said it was safe in Ohio, so I encourage people to get out there and vote on Tuesday.” Notably, the Republican governor she singled out would announce less than 24 hours later, “We cannot conduct this election tomorrow, the in-person voting for 13 hours tomorrow, and conform to [CDC] guidelines,” and recommend moving the primaries to June. By the end of the day, Ohio’s health director Dr. Amy Acton ordered the polls closed as a health emergency

Symone Sanders found herself on the same side as Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick DeSantis, who has been roundly condemned for his slow and insufficient response to the virus, including his initial refusal to close beaches. (DeSantis is also known for urging Floridians to not “monkey this up” by voting for his opponent for governor, Andrew Gillum, who happens to be African-American.)

Symone Sanders and DeSantis even made similar points to justify voting on Tuesday. DeSantis told reporters, “We’re definitely voting. They voted during the Civil War. We are going to vote.” Sanders told Cuomo:

In times of war, in times of strife, our country has always upheld our need to uphold our democracy. We have voted in wartime, votes were held many times in this country after times of strife…. So I just encourage folks to use your voice, your vote is your voice, and our democracy is extremely important even in times of strife in this country; we have to do our duty.

Neither DeSantis nor Sanders pointed to a historical precedent for voting during a major pandemic.

While Sanders’ lie was egregious, DNC chair Tom Perez showed a similar reckless disregard for public health. Not only did he urge people to vote, ignoring CDC guidelines, but he threatened to punish states for trying to comply with them

When Perez appeared on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes show on Monday night (3/16/20), the host asked the DNC chair to comment on an Ohio judge’s rejection of the governor’s request to postpone the primary:

It is your view that this can be safely conducted tomorrow? Who have you been consulting to come to that view? Your position as Tom Perez, the head of the DNC, my understanding is you are saying you agree with the states that are going forward?

Perez responded:

We respect what they’re doing…. And I was in contact today with people in a number of these states,  including but not limited to Arizona. And, again, asking them if, do they believe they have the systems in place that enable them to put the elections on tomorrow? And they do. And Republican and Democratic governors have made that judgment that they can do that. I don’t think it’s for me to second-guess those judgments, Chris.

Less than 24 hours later, however, when Ohio’s health director ordered polling locations to be shut down, Perez was all too happy to second-guess the judgment of not only the Ohio governor, but the health director, who happens to be a physician with an MD and a master’s in public health; the first and only woman to hold this position; and, by the way, a former Obama volunteer. In a statement, Perez blasted the postponement:

What happened in Ohio last night has only bred more chaos and confusion, and the Democratic Party leadership in Ohio is working tirelessly to protect the right to vote. Eligible voters deserve certainty, safety and accessibility.

He discouraged other states from moving their primaries:

That’s why states that have not yet held primary elections should focus on implementing the aforementioned measures to make it easier and safer for voters to exercise their constitutional right to vote, instead of moving primaries to later in the cycle when timing around the virus remains unpredictable.

Those were public statements, but an internal DNC memo sent to members of the Rules and Bylaws Committee on Wednesday night, and obtained by the Guardian (3/17/20), went further, threatening to punish states that moved their primary beyond a cut-off date of June 9 by reducing their number of delegates by half. (Louisiana and Kentucky scheduled their elections to take place on June 23.) It’s hard to reconcile Perez’s statement that the “timing around the virus remains unpredictable” with a firm cut-off date.

The head of a party that is positioning itself as the science- and reason-embracing alternative to the Republicans ignored the advice, recommendations and pleas of trained experts. “Deeply disappointed that the DNC is willfully choosing not to listen to scientists during one of the most critical moments in recent history,” tweeted molecular biologist and March For Science organizer Lucky Tran. Over 2,500 people, including over 100 doctors, scientists and public health professionals, signed an open letter to “Extend Mail-in Voting and Reschedule March Primaries Amid Pandemic”:

We have seen long lines of voters in states like Texas and Michigan. The amount of time standing in line with hundreds or even thousands of other voters substantially increases the likelihood that someone will get sick. By postponing primaries, state governments will be able to keep resources focused, and they will not need to worry about the distraction of running primaries while responding to this pandemic. This will also give time for the states to implement alternative voting mechanisms, such as vote-by-mail, at a sufficient scale if the pandemic continues to be an emergency for these states. Furthermore, polling place workers, who are generally retired volunteers over 65 years old, should not need to be exposed to the risk of contracting the coronavirus while managing precinct locations.

The letter also clarified:

We do not believe that a public health crisis or a state of emergency should ever be used as an excuse to cancel elections. The Democratic primary season concludes in early June; the party has full flexibility to schedule state-level races at any point before then.

The conditions found at polling stations were exactly what the people who signed the letter, the governor of Ohio, the director of health, and everyone who urged the Democratic Party to put human life over political expediency feared. Bernie Sanders coordinator Abshir Omar spoke to me on my podcast (Katie Halper Show, 3/20/20) about the violations of CDC guidelines he observed and documented on video and through photographs.

“Thousands of people were put at risk and possibly exposed to deadly pathogens,” Omar said:

The CDC put out guidelines to the election board to try to conduct safe elections: have six-foot spacing, wipe down all voting equipment after each use. And out of all the voting locations that I visited—I visited nearly 15 sites—not a single voting location was in compliance with the CDC’s health advisory for this election. Not a single site. Reasonable health accommodations are not being made.

At an early voting site in Gage Park, Illinois’ second-largest Latino district, Omar said, “In the basement of an unventilated building, I saw 200-plus people standing in hallways less than a foot apart from each other.”

Omar spoke to a voter volunteer who explained that the elections supplies never arrived, so they had to turn away voters and send them to an overcrowded “super polling place.”

Omar also spoke to Deborah Colins, who was standing outside of the Thurgood Marshall Library, who said:

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker did something, but not until it was too late. On Friday, three days after he insisted it was safe to vote, the governor issued a stay-at-home order after consulting with “some of the best medical experts, epidemiologists, mathematicians and modelers” in the country. Three days earlier, he couldn’t be bothered to listen to CDC guidelines. Pritzker’s order bans gatherings of more than 10 people, yet three days before, he allowed for gatherings of hundreds of people at polling stations.

“The Biden campaign came under fire on Sunday for spreading ‘dangerous’ misinformation about the coronavirus,” Paste (3/17/20) reported.

All of this seems incredibly newsworthy and urgent. Yet, despite the preponderance of documentary evidence, to my knowledge, the only published piece on the CDC violations that occurred at polling sites was by Jake Johnson in Common Dreams (3/18/20). The only outlets we saw writing about the comments made by Symone Sanders were Paste magazine (3/17/20) and the Intercept (3/16/20). The Young Turks’ Emma Vigland (3/17/20) discussed Symone Sanders’ quote in a video.

Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post has said anything about what should be front-page news. Neither CNN’s Chris Cuomo nor MSNBC’s Chris Hayes did any follow-up reporting on the questions they posed to their guests. When CNN’s Jake Tapper (3/22/20) interviewed Pritzker about his tough decision, he didn’t ask the governor about his earlier decision to go forward with the primaries.

To his credit, MSNBC fill-in host David Gura (3/22/20) asked Chicago Mayor Lori Lighthouse if she had “any second thoughts about Illinois continuing with that in-person voting… just a few days ago? I know hindsight is 20/20, but you did have folks going to the poll across the state of Illinois this week.”  The mayor responded that “hindsight is 20/20,” but claimed

the Board of Elections did a good job to make sure that all the voting machines and the areas in which people voted were sanitized and that social distancing was in place. Very tough circumstances to hold an election. But we got through it.

They got through it by having people closer to each other, failing to provide precincts with voting supplies, and failing to wipe down pens or voting machines.

But MSNBC’s star anchor Rachel Maddow (3/17/20) did not question the wisdom of Tuesday’s primaries. Unlike Chris Hayes, she did not question Tom Perez’s position on the elections. Instead, she put the blame on Bernie Sanders:

One of the things that is a really serious public health consideration is what is going to happen with these primaries that are being held throughout the country. And if one of the two remaining candidates in the race has what amounts to a de facto insurmountable lead, if the race is going to continue all the way until the convention because the guy who is never going to catch up just wants to stay in the race just because he’s got his reasons of his own, it has a different weight now…. Because these primaries are only gonna continue to happen because Senator Sanders is going to stay in the race…. So it will be his decision that forces these very difficult health decisions on all of these states.

Brian Williams chimed in: “You’re so right to say that.”

But Maddow was not “so right.”  While Williams might not be aware of this, Maddow, a Rhodes scholar and self-described political “geek,” surely knows full well that our primaries are not just for candidates running for president, but for thousands of people running for Congress, mayor, governor and countless other local offices. In other words, these primaries are going to occur independently of the presidential race, barring some nationwide cancellation of democracy. Should all candidates in all races drop out if their opponents are leading in polls?

You don’t have to cancel democracy because it’s hard to have safe elections; you find safe ways for people to take part. And if  Maddow and Williams think the public health risks are big enough to justify canceling a primary, why wouldn’t they justify postponing the scheduled ones? If canceling a primary is justifiable and doesn’t subvert democracy, surely postponing the scheduled ones is too.

Brian Williams tells Rachel Maddow (MSNBC, 3/17/20) she is “so right” to say that Bernie Sanders withdrawing from the race would make the entire primary process unnecessary.

If this were about public health and safety, Williams and Maddow would have been imploring governors and the DNC to postpone the primaries until a safer date. But they didn’t. If they cared about saving lives, they would have covered the documented CDC violations. But they didn’t.

If they cared about the conduct of presidential candidates, they might have mentioned that after the CDC advisory, one candidate, Bernie Sanders, said he was “not sure” if it made “a lot of sense” to hold the primaries on Tuesday and ceased his Get Out The Vote operation. The other candidate did not cease his GOTV operation, and did not issue a correction when his senior adviser falsely claimed the CDC declared it safe to vote on Tuesday

Since the primary, one candidate has been holding teach-ins and roundtables with medical professionals and members of Congress and has raised over $2 million for charities involved in Corona relief. The other candidate was literally nowhere to be found between Tuesday night and the following Monday. Time and time again, Maddow, Williams and the network for which they work have demonstrated such a strong bias against Sanders that it literally gets in the way of facts like numbers and polling

Public Health Enemy No. 1 at this moment is Donald Trump. As such, one of our most urgent tasks is accurately informing the public about Covid-19 to counter his lies. Instead, the chair of the DNC and the Biden campaign decided to amplify Trump’s message that Covid-19 was no real impediment to public gatherings, and endangered millions of their own voters. And instead of reporting on this urgent story, the media have enabled this dangerous behavior.

© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Katie Halper

Katie Halper

Katie Halper is a writer, comedian, filmmaker and the host of "The Katie Halper Show," a weekly WBAI radio show and podcast (become a patron of the show on Patreon here). Her writing has appeared in New York Magazine, Common Dreams, Rolling Stone, Salon, The Guardian, and The Nation, and she has appeared on MSNBC, Sirius Radio, Fox News Radio and "The Young Turks."  Follow her on Twitter: @Kthalps

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