Pandemic, Protests and Police: An Election Like No Other

Pandemic, Protests and Police: An Election Like No Other

WASHINGTON — On the biggest day of voting since the coronavirus disrupted public life, Americans cast ballots in extraordinary circumstances on Tuesday, heading to the polls during a national health and economic crisis and amid the widespread protests and police deployments that have disrupted communities across the nation.

It made for some unusual scenes in this most unusual election season.

In the nation’s capital, for instance, polling places are open until 8 p.m., while the citywide curfew in place begins at 7 p.m. (the police did not anticipate arresting voters who broke the curfew).

In Philadelphia, 70 percent of polling places were closed while the authorities banned vehicle traffic and shut down public transportation in Center City, the downtown area, because of the unrest, meaning the only ways to get to polling sites were by foot or by bicycle.

And in Indianapolis, where 90 percent of polling locations were closed, voters faced long lines outdoors in 90-degree heat to vote in the remaining spots.

The voting also came amid a sustained assault on the electoral system by President Trump, who has falsely attacked mail voting as biased toward Democrats, threatened to withhold federal resources from states that mailed ballots to voters and suggested in general, with no evidence, the Democrats are looking to rig the election.

Voters in eight states and Washington, D.C., were choosing nominees for congressional and local offices while casting perfunctory primary ballots in the presidential contest, which has long been set between Mr. Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The most prominent down-ballot race on Tuesday involved Representative Steve King of Iowa. Ostracized by his party after giving an interview questioning why white supremacy was considered offensive, Mr. King, a nine-term Republican, faced the toughest primary of his career.

Elsewhere, Valerie Plame, the former C.I.A. agent outed in what became one of the biggest scandals of the George W. Bush administration, was seeking the Democratic nomination for a House seat in New Mexico. Iowa Democrats were choosing a nominee to face Senator Joni Ernst in the fall. And Republicans in an open Indiana House district sold themselves as Trump allies in a seat Democrats hope to flip in November.

The impact of current events was evident in Philadelphia, where voters were confronted with the dual realities of going to the polls in a city shaken by confrontations between police and protesters. Activists were also concerned about the presence of police officers and National Guard members near polling places, which they said might intimidate some voters.

Credit…Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer, via Associated Press

“We are seeing and feeling the effects of the police response to the protests over the last few days,” said Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. She cited the city convention center, where 18 polling locations had been condensed into one, as having a significant presence of National Guard troops, “which is obviously a deterrent to voters.”

Voters reported wait times of 90 minutes to two hours at Finley Recreation Center and Anna B. Day School in the East Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.

And counties across Pennsylvania were swamped by a surge in absentee ballot requests. On Monday night, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered six counties to keep counting ballots that arrived after Election Day for up to seven days, as long as they were postmarked by 8 p.m., a ruling that could be challenged in court.

Voting by mail was also an issue in Indiana, where the state’s rapid expansion of that process brought confusion and frustration, particularly in Indianapolis. The city had set a deadline of noon Tuesday to return mail-in ballots, yet polls for in-person voting were open until 6 p.m.

Republicans in Indiana’s Fifth Congressional District, which includes the northern swath of Indianapolis and counties to the north, were choosing among 14 candidates to replace Representative Susan Brooks, who is retiring. Democrats believe the seat will be competitive in November.

Some states with primaries on Tuesday saw surges in turnout as tens of thousands of voters cast ballots from home for the first time.

In Iowa, more than 223,000 Democrats had returned absentee ballots for the state’s Senate primary by Tuesday, according to Paul Pate, the secretary of state. Just over 176,000 Democrats voted in the state’s 2018 primary for governor.


Credit…Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times

In Johnson County, which includes the University of Iowa, more people voted by mail in Tuesday’s election than had voted absentee in any contest ever, according to John Deeth, a county elections official.

Very few people in Iowa turned out to vote in person Tuesday. By 2 p.m., just 56 people had voted at the Coralville Public Library, according to Zach Wahls, a Democratic state senator who helped organize young people to work at polling sites so the state’s usual crop of older poll workers could be spared the risks of the pandemic. During the 2018 primary, 287 people voted in person at the library.

“We had a voter every 10 minutes or so,” said Mr. Wahls, who killed the time by reading “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. “It was very slow.”

In Montana, where both parties have competitive primaries for governor, more than 57 percent of registered voters had returned mail ballots by Tuesday, the highest turnout of any 2020 state primary, according to the Vote at Home Institute, which promotes voting by mail.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 2, 2020

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.