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WLRN Connects: Voting During a Pandemic

A poll worker wears personal protective equipment as she monitors a ballot drop box for mail-in ballots outside of a polling station during early voting, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in Miami Beach, Fla. Florida's primary election is August 18.
Lynne Sladky/AP
A poll worker wears personal protective equipment as she monitors a ballot drop box for mail-in ballots outside of a polling station during early voting, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in Miami Beach, Fla. Florida's primary election is August 18.

The pandemic has changed this election in so many ways — how we vote, how campaigns are run, the experience at the polling station, even how you think about the U.S. mail.

This week’s election has been different every step of the way: Campaign volunteers have had to figure out more creative ways to register voters and educate them about candidates, and many more people are choosing to cast their ballots by mail.

For those who plan to venture out to the polls on Election Day, many will be decked out in personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

On this week’s WLRN Connects, we explored what it looks like to have an election during a global pandemic.

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Monica Skoko Rodríguez and Adriana Rivera have worked to recruit new voters during the pandemic.

Skoko Rodríguez is president of the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade County as well as a nurse and a public health expert. She said campaigns have had to change their approach to protect volunteers and residents from exposure to COVID-19.

While door-to-door outreach is typically effective for campaigns, “that's just not possible during the pandemic any longer,” she said. “So what you see now is campaigns actively trying to avoid in-person contact with voters and leaving mailers on their doors super early in the morning and doing things like car parades to get out the vote.”

She said the sea change in campaigning has given an advantage to politicians who are more comfortable with technology or whose target demographics are digital natives.

“Less technologically-savvy politicians might have a harder time really convincing voters via a Zoom town hall,” she said.

Rivera works for the Florida Immigrant Coalition and has been reaching out to South Floridians who are voting for the first time here, either because they are immigrants who became citizens recently or because they are Puerto Ricans who came to the mainland U.S. following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2018.

Rivera said her group’s phone and text canvassing is “culturally nuanced,” which means, for example, people who are reaching out to voters speak the same dialect of Spanish as them.

“If we're reaching out to Puerto Ricans, we're not having somebody who's Mexican or Colombian driving [the campaign],” Rivera said. Instead, “we're having native speakers, people who know the culture, people who get the jokes and the cultural references, to create that content that’s going to be really relevant.”

And while people are campaigning differently, they’re also voting differently. Floridians are voting by mail in much higher numbers than usual.

Al Friedman, president of the Florida State Association of Letter Carriers, urged voters to send in their ballots early for the November general election. While it’s too late now to mail ballots for tomorrow’s contests, voters can still drop them off at certain locations.

Friedman said the biggest concern for the members of his union now is their exposure to the coronavirus. He said three mail carriers have died from complications of COVID-19: one in Miami, one in Fort Lauderdale and one in Sunrise.

He shared an anecdote about a mail carrier who was about to pull away from a home when a woman came out to give him an additional piece of mail. She licked the envelope before she handed it to him.

“Now he's got a licked, sealed envelope in his truck, in his hands, and he is petrified,” Friedman said. “He calls me. I told him: Just isolate it. Cover it up. And when you get back to the office, deal with it at the office level as well, because we still aren't sure how long these viruses will live on surfaces.”

Voters aren’t the only ones who might be avoiding the polls over health concerns. Some older or immunocompromised poll workers are taking a break from their work during the pandemic.

For Palm Beach County poll worker Linda Wartow, this Election Day will be a disappointing one.

“I will feel sad. I love being there. I also voted there. It's right by my home, and I was very lucky for almost all except one time, I voted right where I lived. So I knew the people,” Wartow said. “I felt I was really helping out. And I just — I will miss it. I will miss it.”

Will she return?

“Without reservation,” she said, “after this is over.”

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.
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