During most election years in the United States, Election Day marks the beginning of the end of what is typically a long and controversial political season. A large majority of American voters line up at their local polling stations to vote for the next president, before returning home and settling in front of their television screens in anticipation of the “big reveal”. Usually, the winner is announced the same day or the next morning in the event of a particularly tight race.
But 2020 is not like most years. The coronavirus pandemic has turned almost every aspect of this electoral cycle upside down – from the way presidential campaigns are run to how the country ultimately votes. The pandemic spawned an election year like never before – rallies were held virtually, conventions were called off, debates were rescheduled, record numbers of ballots were mailed, and in the midst of it all that, President Donald Trump himself, tested positive for the deadly infection.
An overview of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the 2020 US elections
Campaign changes: In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden stepped up their efforts to reach voters across the country. However, with the coronavirus pandemic tightening its grip on the United States and the number of cases and the death toll in the country steadily increasing, the nominees have been forced to be creative in their campaign strategies.
The approach proven on the ground – where armies of volunteers go door to door to sell their presidential candidate hard by touting their many virtues – has taken a step back, especially in the first months of the pandemic. But the two nominees opted for very different campaign approaches.
While Biden’s campaign has taken a cautious approach and endorsed Covid-19 mitigation strategies like constant social distancing and wearing a mask; Trump has clearly opposed many of these restrictions, saying they are politically motivated.
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Despite an increase in Covid cases, Trump has held several in-person rallies in states across the country. Recently, he has hosted a number of events in crowded airport hangars, where thousands of his supporters have gathered without maintaining social distancing or wearing face masks.
In fact, a recent study from the Stanford University Economics Department linked tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases and hundreds of deaths to its huge campaign rallies. Researchers looked at Covid-19 infection rates at 18 locations Trump hosted events between June 20 and September 30, and then compared them to post-rally infection rates.
The rallies “ultimately resulted in over 30,000 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19” and “likely led to more than 700 deaths,” the study said. The deaths were not necessarily from people who attended the event, but rather linked to cases related to the Trump rallies, the study said.
Meanwhile, Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden has kept in-person interactions to a minimum. His campaign has organized a number of virtual rallies and social distancing events with smaller groups of supporters.
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Virtual and reduced national conventions: The Republican Party and Democrats have organized rather atypical national conventions to officially nominate their presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The Democratic Party hosted the nation’s first fully virtual convention, while Republicans chose a mix of live and recorded events.
At the first Democratic National Convention (DNC) held in August, virtual guests – including a list of prominent politicians, rising stars, and ordinary Americans – were teleported from across the country, and pre-recorded speeches were broadcast to the millions of voters who watched the event live. Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris accepted their nominations and delivered arguably the most defining speeches of their political careers in a nearly empty hotel ballroom in Wilmington, Delaware.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s four-day national convention was a partly virtual, partly in-person affair. The guest list for the convention has been pruned to a large extent, in order to ensure that adequate social distancing measures are maintained. While a small number of Republican leaders were in attendance for the first day of the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, most of the events took place virtually. The event ended with the formal acceptance of his nomination by Trump for the second time by the White House from the South Lawn.
Presidential debates: This year’s presidential debates were memorable in more ways than one. The first chaotic and incomprehensible debate between Trump and Biden is hard to forget. But the focus of the debate was also very different this time around – the contestants did not shake hands when they took the stage, the audience was sparse compared to previous debates, and there was no media “tour” room, where campaigns would otherwise send their supporters to defend their candidates after the debate.
President Trump‘s Covid diagnosis threw another wrench into the work. Given Trump’s illness and uncertainty about his health, the Presidential Debates Committee (CPD) had attempted to shift the debate to a remote format, but the president flatly refused to participate. The second debate was finally canceled.
The vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris was also conducted with strict Covid rules. Pence and Harris stood 12 feet, 3 inches apart for the duration of the debate, behind clear plexiglass dividers.
The virus has also been at the center of presidential and vice-presidential debates. Biden has repeatedly criticized Trump for his handling of the pandemic, which has already killed more than 230,000 people nationwide. Trump, on the other hand, insists he has done a “great job” and that the United States is “on the brink” of the pandemic.
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How the vote has changed: Within days of U.S. election day, more than 90 million Americans have already voted by mail or in person. A majority of states across the country are reporting a record expected turnout this year. In fact, the pre-election vote topped two-thirds of all ballots cast in the last election in 2016. According to a CNN survey, those votes represent about 43% of registered voters nationwide. Express Explained is now on Telegram
However, the move to early voting is by no means a new phenomenon and has been going on for years. The pandemic has only accelerated the transition. Postal voting has also increased significantly since the spring, when the pandemic first made its presence felt in the country.
But the U.S. Post is also at the center of a bitter battle between Democrats and Republicans, with the former calling for greater access for Americans to postal voting, and the latter opposing it on the grounds that it would increase the chances of fraud.
The postal ballot process is also taxing for election workers, who will have to manually remove the ballots from their envelopes and check whether they are valid before they can be fed into the tabulators. Many have warned that the counting process may not be completed on election day, delaying the results.
Covid-19 at the White House: US President Donald Trump’s diagnosis of Covid has caused great uncertainty in what was already an unpredictable electoral cycle. To make matters worse, First Lady Melania Trump and several of her closest aides also contracted the deadly infection. At least 13 senior White House officials have been infected, a majority of whom are believed to have contracted the disease during the now infamous Rose Garden event, where Trump announced that Justice Amy Coney Barrett was his choice for the Supreme Court.
Prior to testing positive for Covid-19, Trump’s agenda was filled with events and rallies across the United States, attended by thousands of his supporters. His campaign has been widely criticized for continuing to organize in-person events and rallies despite the threat posed by the novel coronavirus.