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How the rising virus got into the countryside in every way imaginable

Driving polling stations. Candidates trying to sell themselves to voters on Zoom. Masked and gloved solicitors knock on doors and then rush six feet back.

The coronavirus has turned the 2020 election season upside down in almost every round: emerging as the dominant issue among top-to-bottom candidates in the ballot, blurring the traditions of the American campaign and complicating the way votes are cast. And as Election Day approaches, the country is in the grip of the pandemic like never before.

“All we’re missing is the asteroid landing with carnivorous zombies, and our year will be over,” said Paul Lux, the election supervisor in Okaloosa County, Fla., And the one of nearly nine million Americans to contract the virus.

Mr. Lux has previously worked long hours from his office in his predominantly Republican county in the Florida Panhandle. As the election season drew to a close, he found himself isolated last week, trying to oversee the entire voting apparatus for the county’s 210,000 residents on an iPad from the recliner chair in his den.

His election office was closed for a thorough cleaning. Some of his colleagues have also tested positive. And Mr. Lux was watching the early vote as best he could, between two temperature checks every two hours.

The collision of an election and a pandemic has thrown campaigns and early voting efforts into a last-minute frenzy, and the double-narratives appear to be peaking at precisely the same time.

Candidates for races across the country are sneaking in the latest campaign flurries while simultaneously navigating the coronavirus outbreak and asking questions political strategists had never considered before. Among them: Could voters love you better if you keep your distance?

Voters who had never considered sending their ballot are doing so for the first time rather than braving their usual indoor polling stations. And some members of the National Army of Election Day workers are weighing the level of protective gear to wear – if they go to the polls again this year.

When presidential competition began to intensify in early 2020, there was little doubt that the year would be defined by the coronavirus pandemic. But when the Iowans gathered for caucuses in early February, the virus may have already been spreading quietly.

For a while, it appeared to primarily affect residents of the Democratic-leaning towns and suburbs of the east and west coasts, where the virus struck early. President Trump claimed in September that the death toll from Covid-19 in the United States was at a “very low level”, but only “if you remove the blue states”.

Keep up with Election 2020

Right now, however, few places are intact as a third wave of the virus is sweeping across large swathes of the country, including Republican-dominated sections of the Great Plains and Western Mountain. And in battlefield states, a growing share of cases are emerging in counties that supported Mr. Trump in 2016.

The last time Americans voted during a pandemic – the midterm elections in 1918 – infections also increased in October. Candidates who couldn’t campaign wrote letters instead. Voter turnout was low. And those who voted called for change, toppling both houses of Congress.

Today, the virus threatens the very traditions of American political life.

On election night of 2016, dozens of Democrats from Sheboygan, Wisconsin gathered at the local party office with beer, wine and pizza to see the results arrive. This year, they expect to be home, alone.

“What we lack is the camaraderie of being with like-minded people who want to talk about it,” said Anita Klein, a political organizer at Sheboygan since the 1970s.

Vickie Tonkins, President of the El Paso County Republican Party in Colorado, weighed in by hosting an election night in a hotel ballroom, but governor-imposed Covid-19 guidelines made the plan too expensive .

“It’s disappointing because we are anticipating some big wins here,” she said. “It is what it is.”

What will never be forgotten in 2020 are the Covid elections, when a pandemic shook all parts of American democracy, from campaigns to election officials to the millions of people trying to vote.

Countrisides

When the coronavirus hit, the first question the campaigns faced was existential: how do they continue?

The campaign’s physical efforts – shaking hands, hugging, kissing babies, and hugging together to take photos – have been avoided for the most part, especially by Democrats. The occasional salon fundraiser has been replaced with Zoom gatherings. County gyms and fairs, once campaign gathering places, have been converted into coronavirus testing sites.

And dozens of candidates themselves – from Mr. Trump and members of Congress to city council hopefuls – have contracted the virus, forcing them to quit the election campaign they had managed to build, at least for one. time.

Mike Kelly, a five-term Republican congressman from northwestern Pennsylvania, goes to parades and county fairs every year, chatting with voters and even buying cattle. This year, Mr Kelly caught the virus in the spring. County fairs were canceled in the summer.

“We really lost that sense of connectivity on a lightweight basis,” said Melanie Brewer, her campaign manager. She said the campaign had tried to make up for lost encounters with Zoom, but “it’s not the same as holding a funnel-shaped cake and talking to your congressman.”

There is nothing more powerful than personal conversation, said Jonathan Jakubowski, Chairman of the Republican Party for Wood County, Ohio. He said he had worn a face mask to visit hundreds of homes in the past three months.

Monica Sparks, a Democratic Commissioner from Kent County, Michigan, had to get creative. She dropped leaflets at the doors but did not hit them. She made her campaign posters larger than usual this year – adding a photo of herself to each one.

“I need people to know me, see me and see my smile,” she says.

Election workers

As time passes, some volunteer polling officers, who are often older and may face more risk from the virus, wonder whether to even pursue this time around with what they see as their responsibility. civic. Workers moving forward say there is a different set of rules this time around. Snacks to share with other election officials came out. There’s a bunch of sinister contraptions: Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, masks.

Charli Jones, 56, of Columbus, Ohio, comes from a line of pollsters. His mother worked the polls. His grandmother too. “I wanted to do my part and I also wanted voters to see a face that could look like them,” said Ms. Jones, who is black.

But coming to the decision to work the ballot box in a state where coronavirus cases are on the rise has not been easy for Ms Jones, who said her husband and mother have compromised immune systems.

“I really wish we didn’t have to submit ourselves, or other people, to the vote in person,” she said.

Gloria Willis, a retired fourth-grade teacher in Gifford, Fla., Once relished the Election Day tradition, when she got up early, packed two sandwiches and arrived at her local community center at 6 morning hours for a long but rewarding day of welcoming voters and reviewing driver’s licenses. “It was a joy,” she says.

When she got the call this year, she thought about the people she has known who have died from the virus – five and more.

“It was enough to say no,” said Ms. Willis, 72, who will be staying at the house this year.

The electors

Officials in Wausau, Wis., Set up a drive-thru voting site for the first time last weekend. Hospitals in Marathon County, Wisconsin, have restricted visitors due to the coronavirus, but are allowing a pre-election exception for those in attendance to witness patients voting by mail from their hospital beds.

Even for voters who are “dyed in the wool ‘I wanna go to the voting booth,” as Geoff Badenoch, a polling officer in Missoula, Mt., describes, this year will be different: with a poll of workers in masks, six-foot parting lines on the floor, and sanitizer sprays all around.

Whether their votes will be influenced by the pandemic remains an open question.

While the coronavirus first spread fastest and worst in urban and suburban counties that tend to support Democrats, the geographic pattern of the pandemic has since changed. In late spring and summer, the model began to shift more to smaller towns and rural counties that are more firmly Republicans. The share of reported cases in Red Counties has increased each month, from 20% in March to 56% now, according to an analysis of New York Times virus data.

Some of that change is happening in states that are largely Republican, but much of it is in counties that make up Mr. Trump’s base in the battlefield states.

In North Carolina, cases have been distributed evenly between red and blue counties throughout the summer, but now more than 60% of new reports come from counties that have backed the president. In Wisconsin this month, nearly 75% of cases – and 80% of deaths – are attributed to counties that backed Mr. Trump in 2016.

As coronavirus cases reach new and alarming highs, how the trajectory of the virus may affect the candidates people vote for remains unclear. In one survey, a daily tracking poll of registered voters by Civiq, only about a quarter of people who identify as Republicans say they are at least “moderately” concerned about the pandemic – roughly the same as in June.

Sandy Roberson, the Republican mayor of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, whose son was quarantined on a college campus after being exposed to the coronavirus, said he hated how divisive the debate had become as he tried to blame politics for the spread of the virus.

“I don’t know if we could have handled the situation better,” he said of the president. “The whole Covid-19 experience left a lot of people feeling a lot less in control, like you’re walking around at sea. There’s a feeling of helplessness, and that loss of control has an impact, and we’re going to see politically.

Dionne searcey contribution to reports.

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