Days before Portugal’s election, quarantined voters cast ballots at home


* Authorities come up with solutions to hold election

* Local councils collect votes from people’s houses

* Fears of lowest election turnout ever

By Catarina Demony and Pedro Nunes

LISBON, Jan 21 (Reuters) – Ana Gameiro, her husband and son all tested positive for the coronavirus last week amid a surge of infections across Portugal, forcing them to self-quarantine before a presidential election this Sunday that they do not want to miss.

To the family’s relief, volunteers from their local council in Cascais near Lisbon stepped in to help, collecting their ballots straight from their doorstep.

“Even at home voting is a right we all have,” Gameiro told Reuters after handing in her vote to two volunteers wearing full-body protective suits. “This way is much easier.”

Allowing those in quarantine to vote at home was one of the the solutions Portuguese authorities came up with to be able to hold the Jan. 24 election during a lockdown aimed at reining in record daily infections and deaths from the virus.

Still, experts fear the presidential election will have a record low turnout due to the pandemic. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of the centre-right Social Democratic Party is expected to comfortably win a second term, although the vote is also likely to show a rising far right.

Portugal’s president is a largely ceremonial figure but he plays an important role at times of uncertainty.

Some 13,000 people had signed up to vote from home across Portugal. On Tuesday and Wednesday, teams knocked on their doors, verified their identity, provided ballots and gave them privacy to vote. Teams also visited nursing homes to gather votes from elderly residents.

Voters placed their ballots inside an envelope and then the teams put it inside another envelope. They will then be kept in a box for a few days before it is safe to count the ballots.

“Amid this pandemic, this chaos, we wanted to be part of the solution,” said 46-year-old Miguel Arrobas, a Cascais town hall official and one of the volunteers.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.

“If there are elections, we have to think of people who at this moment cannot go to the polls…I felt like I had to help solve this issue,” said volunteer Sofia Mascarenhas.

But many voters have complained they were not able to sign up for the service online, while others said the Jan. 17 registration deadline was too tight. Those who went into quarantine after Jan. 14 were unable to register.

Opposition party Left Bloc said the issues must be addressed, saying voters do not get to choose the “day and time when they unfortunately catch the virus”.

Portugal’s daily COVID-19 cases rose 40% on Wednesday from the day before to a record 14,647, bringing the total number of infections to 581,605 since the start of the pandemic. The death toll stands at 9,465 as of Thursday. (Reporting by Catarina Demony and Pedro Nunes, Editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)

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