Who could have known?
Who could have predicted that a year whose story would have surely been seen through the lens of a presidential campaign would unfold as it has. Who could have anticipated a virus that, a week before Election Day, had killed over 225,000 Americans and infected 8.7 million; that a video capturing a Minneapolis officer killing a Black man by pressing a knee into his neck would unleash across the nation rage and protest that transcended race and class; that the American economy would come to virtual standstill for tens of millions of people who suddenly found themselves out of work and out of money; that wearing a mask and keeping one’s distance from others to avoid contracting and spreading a deadly disease would become political statements, litmus tests for whose side you were on?
Who could have anticipated that the fears that so many of us had come to accept as a part of our lives would be overwhelmed by fears more dire and terrifying?
Our reporters’ stories of these four American towns began in February, less than a week after the third presidential impeachment trial in the nation’s history ended in an acquittal. The following week, President Trump attended an election rally in New Hampshire. Federal prosecutors called for a prison term of seven to nine years for the president’s longtime friend and associate Roger Stone after his conviction for impeding a congressional investigation. The Justice Department sued local and state governments in California, New Jersey and Washington State in an escalation in the administration’s battle against so-called “sanctuary cities.” Pete Buttigieg was suddenly the Democratic candidate to beat after his apparent narrow win in the Iowa Caucuses. Unemployment stood at 3.5 percent. And the Chinese city of Wuhan was on lockdown as a virus that had first appeared as a suspected flu in December was racing through the city. Meanwhile, the first laboratory confirmed case of coronavirus in the United States had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control on January 20.
The nation will choose a president next week, and there is great uncertainty as to how this election will play out. Will it end on Election Night, or will it take weeks, or longer, to know the winner? Will voters decide, or will the courts? Four journalists have been telling the stories of their towns since February. This is where they find their communities––and themselves––as Election Day nears.
Greg Glassner, Caroline County, Virgina
I turn seventy-six on Election Day. That puts me in the same ballpark as Donald Trump and Joe Biden in terms of age. I know I do not have the same physical and mental stamina I did at age sixty-six or fifty-six, so I admire that two men my age are willing to tackle a four-year commitment to what may be the most challenging job in the nation. But I also question their sanity.
That thought and others were on my mind as I voted on October 20 at the Caroline County Registrar’s Office in Bowling Green. Virginia loosened the restrictions on early voting this year and an estimated twenty-five percent of the electorate already voted in person or was sending mail-in ballots.
The ubiquitous yard signs that were missing back in September have sprung up along the roadside like mushrooms after a heavy rain. Perhaps COVID-19 delayed their distribution.
I am not sure how much impact these signs will have on the other voters; it appears that most folks have already made up their minds. Opinion among Caroline County residents seems to be divided on the issues, as they head into the polls in the first presidential election in a century where there is no local newspaper to report on it.
Caroline County’s 31,000 residents have experienced only 402 total cases of COVID-19 and six deaths between April 1 and October 21, due partly to its rural location and low population density. Even wearing masks in public places caught on eventually.
The county had been poised in January for a very good year. That outlook was gutted by COVID-19, but the fallout here has been less severe than in other locales. Unemployment rose from 3.3 percent in February to 10.9 percent over the summer and has now settled at 6.6 percent. Several planned commercial developments are still a-go, however, so it is not all gloom and doom here.
In 2016, Caroline was one of a handful of pivot counties in the state, giving Trump a five percent win over Hillary Clinton––after handing Barack Obama a twelve percent win in 2008 and eight percent win in 2012. My crystal ball is no more reliable than others. Still, I see Biden taking Caroline County and Virginia this year, but not by a landslide.
Few Republicans will switch to Biden, in my view, but a number of independents who went for Trump in 2016 are feeling buyer’s remorse. In Caroline County, I also see incumbent Democratic US Senator Mark Warner and Republican 1st District Congressman Rob Wittman ahead. Campaign spending in the neighboring 7th Congressional District race between Democratic incumbent Abigail Spanberger and challenger Nick Freitas has outstripped that being spent in all of Virginia on the presidential race. And that one is a tossup.
Sandra Sanchez, McAllen, Texas
Early voting has surpassed all previous records in Hidalgo County, the largest county in the Rio Grande Valley, despite the area having one of the worst COVID-19 infection and deaths rates in the nation.
As of October 25, there were already 8,000 more early votes cast in person––140,499––than all of the early voting period in Hidalgo County during the 2016 presidential election, according to Hidalgo County officials. The total number of registered voters to date is the largest ever set in the county.
Early voting began October 13, a week earlier than usual, to allow for more voters to safely access the polls and to help minimize the spread of the deadly virus, which has killed 1,924 people and sickened over 35,000 in this county of 860,000 people.
Months ago, most voters adamantly rejected the idea of voting in person due to the lockdown this area experienced and spiraling death rates from coronavirus. But on the day early voting began, lines snaked around parking lots of voting sites and thousands of people gave up their lunch hours, and dinner hours, waiting to cast their ballots.
Drive-thru voting has been available at a few sites to anyone who pulls up and honks. One poll worker told me you don’t have to have an excuse, just pull up, hit your horn, “and I’ll come out and take your vote.”
At other polling sites, voters are given long sterilized Q-tips on sticks to touch the electronic poll screens. Drivers’ licenses are doused in antibacterial liquid as they sit in a tray before election workers handle the identification cards. Most are returned wet and sticky, but poll workers say it’s necessary.
Signs for either Trump/Pence or Biden/Harris are starting to pop up in front yards throughout the region. Billboards and palm trees also are being decorated. This is the most outwardly active this region has appeared since March. And it’s a testament to the strong feelings voters have toward their choice for president, that they are willing to risk contracting the virus and venture out to vote.
This area has long been a Democratic stronghold and Biden is expected to easily win here, but Texas turning blue, I believe, is a long shot. Either way, the process itself has prevailed because with over 7.8 million Texans—forty-six percent of registered voters—having already cast their ballots, it’s obvious that for this election, at least, Texas voters are engaged and participating, and that’s a big win.
Charles Richardson, Macon, Georgia
Please, let it be over.
This year will not be soon forgotten. We have been sheltering, mostly in place, since March as COVID-19 ravaged through our communities. A shudder went through me when the Trump campaign announced it was planning a rally at our Middle Georgia Regional Airport on October 16––all those maskless people who would flock to see Donald Trump.
Before the rally, Georgia Tech Professor Joshua Weitz told Georgia Public Broadcasting/Macon that those planning to attend had to assume there was an almost certain risk that someone there would have COVID-19. But the rally didn’t disappoint its organizers: thousands attended, and although the campaign took temperatures and offered masks, few wore them, or practiced social distancing.
Meanwhile, not far from the rally, there was a red and white billboard on Interstate 75 South that read: “Trump COVID superspreader event.” A huge arrow pointed in the direction of the airport.
It was frightening to think that COVID-19 would be racing its way back to communities in a state that barely has a handle on the pandemic. In Macon-Bibb County, there were 209 cases per 100,000 in the two weeks before the rally and not a single surrounding county had a rate below 100 cases.
These fears do not stop with the pandemic. How will the end of this year play out? If Republicans lose, will all hell break loose? Will the Proud Boys and groups of their ilk wreak havoc, or will they continue to “stand by”? Will the president concede and bow out gracefully or will he encourage insurrection? Will he use unfounded claims of voter fraud to fan the flames of his discontent?
I fear that if Trump loses there will be those who will try to start a second civil war, with the president’s encouragement.
And there is another question I’ve asked myself and others: What do we do if Trump wins? I’ve thought about my options. Will it be Canada, Mexico, or some island in the Caribbean? America, no matter how flawed, will not be the same America I grew up loving. I know people who are loyal to Trump. I will never speak to them again.
The early voting long lines are encouraging, even in the face of voter suppression. It’s hard to believe that Macon-Bibb County, with a population of only 156,000, has more drop box locations for absentee ballots than Harris County, home to Houston, with a population of 4.5 million.
Long lines at the polls, mainly in minority neighborhoods, are the rule, and our new voting system has been found lacking. I’m praying for a landslide, but even with an overwhelming victory by Democrats, the time between November 4 and January 20 will be fraught with danger for our republic.
Jason Togyer, McKeesport, Pennsylvania
Some days, I’m afraid to check my email or text messages. Besides COVID-19 and the bitter presidential campaign, in June, my dad passed away at age seventy-five of esophageal cancer. He’d otherwise been healthy, as far as we knew. It turned out he hid the illness from us until shortly before his death.
We’ll never know how he developed the cancer. He was only an occasional smoker and a social drinker. I suspect his illness was related to breathing silica dust while working in a steel foundry in McKeesport, but I also believe it was related to the near constant ulcers and heartburn he suffered in his thirties and forties, brought on in part by repeated stretches of unemployment as Pittsburgh’s steel industry collapsed. (He eventually had a second, lengthy career as a schoolteacher.)
Lately, I’m wondering how the emotional strain of our current pandemic, the resultant economic downturn, and the possibility of President Trump contesting the election results will affect people’s health in the future. According to the CDC and other researchers, depression and anxiety disorders have already increased substantially since April.
Sometimes, I worry that my own anxiety is leading to paranoia. My wife sent away for an absentee ballot to vote in the presidential election. It was one of nearly 29,000 Allegheny County ballots that were incorrectly printed by Midwest Direct, a Cleveland vendor. On Friday night, two Republican candidates sued the county, asking for my wife’s ballots, and others, to be set aside and challenged.
Tens of thousands of absentee ballots printed by Midwest Direct for neighboring Westmoreland County went missing or were sent late. According to the New York Times, until recently, the company was flying a “TRUMP 2020” flag at its headquarters. Is it all coincidence? Or is it part of a concerted effort by Republicans to undermine the vote in swing-state Pennsylvania?
As a child, I lived through the demise of heavy industry in Western Pennsylvania and years of double-digit unemployment, including dad’s repeated layoffs. As a newspaper reporter, I covered countless tragedies, from fires, accidents, and homicides, to the crash of Flight 93 in Somerset County on September 11, 2001. But none of it really prepared me for the endless, grinding, daily stress of 2020.
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.
Greg Glassner, Charles Richardson, Sandra Sanchez, and Jason Togyer are the authors.