MIAMI, United States – Joe Biden cemented his status Tuesday, March 17, as the likely Democratic presidential nominee after trouncing rival Bernie Sanders in Florida, the top prize on a busy primary night blighted by the coronavirus pandemic.
With 87% of precincts reporting, Biden surged to an overwhelming lead of 61% to 22%, and multiple US networks immediately projected him the winner as the last polls closed at 8 pm (0000 GMT).
Illinois and Arizona are also voting, and the former vice president leads in polling there and is expected to do well.
A Biden trifecta would leave Sanders a gravely wounded candidate, having largely failed to reverse his fortunes after several tough losses over the past 3 weeks, and he would be under mounting pressure to drop out. (READ: Biden says fighting for U.S. ‘soul’ after big primary wins)
A fourth state, Ohio, was scheduled to vote Tuesday, but it postponed its elections until June on orders of Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who told voters to stay home amid the escalating public health emergency.
That still left a major three-state haul of 441 delegates at stake.
Before Tuesday, Biden was already ahead of Sanders and nearly halfway to the 1,991 delegates needed to become the Democratic nominee who faces President Donald Trump in November’s election.
With Biden taking the lion’s share of Florida’s 219 delegates, his lead could be close to insurmountable after Tuesday.
“Thank you Florida!” Biden tweeted in a now-familiar refrain from the former vice president, who has roared to victory in 17 of the last 22 statewide contests.
The US has officially registered more than 5,600 coronavirus cases, although that is believed to be a fraction of the real number, which has been depressed by delays in rolling out testing.
Election authorities were braced for disruptions with the Trump administration urging Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
Despite hurdles, the states managed to successfully host their primaries.
In Florida, some two million people had already voted early or by mail, and in-person turnout was expected to be low.
Adding to obstacles, state authorities had to move dozens of precincts from senior centers to protect against the virus.
Gabriela Carrilho, a 51-year-old who works in marketing, donned gloves before casting her ballot at a nearly deserted elementary school in Miami Beach.
“I think if you don’t participate, then things never change,” she said.
She and others said they felt safe voting.
“There was hand sanitizer at every single station,” said 29-year-old Matt Don. “They kept a safe distance from me. Everybody in there is keeping safe.”
Test of a century
In Illinois, Chicago election commissioners scrambled to find substitute voting judges after hundreds informed the county clerk’s office they wouldn’t show up.
“This is the biggest test that any election jurisdiction has faced in the last hundred years,” Chicago Board of Elections head Jim Allen said of voting during the pandemic.
The board told reporters that voter turnout was low, even though long lines were seen in Chicago, most likely due to social distancing operations within polling stations.
Governor J.B. Pritzker refused to bend rules and postpone the election, even as he announced the state’s first confirmed death from coronavirus, saying “the constitutional boundaries of our democracy” should be respected.
“If people want to criticize me for that,” he said. “I’ll wear it like a badge of honor.”
Voters also trickled in to cast ballots in Arizona, where polls close a few hours after those in Florida and Illinois.
Democrats are choosing a nominee who will challenge the Republican incumbent in November, but doubts and concerns have undercut the process.
“While Arizona, Florida and Illinois are still voting today, going to the polls amid the coronavirus outbreak is a personal decision and we respect whichever choice voters make,” Sanders tweeted.
Meanwhile, Americans are staying home from work or school by the millions as the country implements emergency measures against a worsening crisis.
Maryland on Tuesday became the latest state to delay voting, pushing its primary from April 28 to June 2.
Kentucky and Louisiana have postponed their elections to June, while Georgia is delaying from next week until May.
The Democratic National Committee urged the remaining states to expand voting tools including vote by mail and extended days of early voting.
Biden and Sanders have been left to campaign exclusively online for now – a scenario unheard of at the height of a US primary battle. – Rappler.com