MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Health workers carrying thermometers and sanitizers manned polling stations across Liberia on Saturday as voters cast their ballots in a twice-delayed Senate election that has been criticized for its potential to spread the deadly Ebola disease.
A total of 1.9 million voters are registered to participate in 15 Senate races throughout the country contested by 139 candidates. But Jerome Korkoya, chairman of the National Elections Commission, said Saturday afternoon that turnout had been low.
"What bothers me is the low turnout, but I am not surprised," he said by telephone from Bong County, where he was casting his ballot. "That's what you find in most of the world now in a political process."
Originally scheduled for October, the vote was pushed back to Dec. 16 as Liberia struggled to contain the Ebola epidemic, which has killed nearly 3,300 people in the country. Officials then pushed it back four more days to Saturday.
The disease appears to have slowed in recent weeks in Liberia, though critics questioned whether the vote could be conducted safely and credibly.
The three countries hit hardest by Ebola — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — have now recorded 7,373 deaths, up from 6,900 on Wednesday, the World Health Organization said Friday. Many of the latest deaths have occurred in Sierra Leone.
Liberian officials vowed to distribute 4,700 thermometers and 10,000 bottles of sanitizer to polling stations in preparation for Saturday's election. Earlier in the week, Assistant Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah warned that anyone running a temperature higher than 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) could be removed from the line and sent for screening. A sudden fever is one of the signs of Ebola infection.
"Let's fight to the last until the last Ebola case is gone out of this country," Nyenswah said.
Korkoya said Saturday, though, that many of the thermometers were not delivered.
On a visit to Liberia Friday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged voters to follow health guidelines "to protect yourself and your loved ones" from the disease, which is spread through contact with the bodily fluids of sick people.
"This election will give Liberia and its people an opportunity to show the world how far it has come," Ban said.
The most high-profile race, in Monrovia's Montserrado County, pits opposition leader George Weah against Robert Sirleaf, son of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Weah, a former soccer star who won the first round of voting for president in 2005 before losing in a runoff, said Saturday he would "flog" Robert Sirleaf, who he described as "unpopular."
Sirleaf could not be reached Saturday, but his campaign spokesman said he believed Sirleaf had won.
Election results could come in as early as Sunday, Korkoya said, though they might also be announced next week.