Images of Wisconsin voters standing at the polls in early April as the coronavirus spread across the country stuck with Jerri Yoss. She wondered how voting could be safe in her home state of Texas, where voting by mail is limited.
So in May she helped launch a new group, "Dems Care Vote Safe," to prepare voters with supplies to protect them at polling places. Yoss knew the campaign manager for Democrat Kim Olson, who is in a congressional primary runoff in Texas' 24th District. The group teamed up with Olson to distribute 5,000 “Vote Safe Kits” to voters ahead of next week’s runoff.
The kits, assembled in small plastic bags, include a disposable mask, disposable plastic gloves, a single-use packet of hand sanitizer and an insert from Olson’s campaign with information about polling locations.
The effort was just one example of how campaigns have navigated the pandemic as voters, nervous about contracting the contagious virus, weigh whether to go to the polls.
It’s a particular challenge in Texas and Alabama, with both states holding primary runoffs on Tuesday at the same time that coronavirus cases are rising in the southern and western parts of the country.
Soon after the pandemic hit, officials in both states postponed the primary runoffs. Alabama’s contests were originally scheduled for March 31, while Texas’ were supposed to be on May 26. The delay allowed campaigns time to adjust to a new world of virtual campaigning.
"It was as if we were frozen in time for a few months,” said Craig Murphy, spokesperson for Republican lobbyist Josh Winegarner, who faces former White House physician Ronny Jackson in a runoff in Texas’ 13th District.
After delaying the elections and ordering residents to stay at home, both states began to reopen in May. Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has now paused that process as cases have spiked in recent weeks. This week he ordered that masks be worn in counties with more than 20 cases. On Tuesday, one week before the runoff, Texas reported 10,000 new coronavirus cases, a record for the Lone Star State.
Alabama has also seen cases rise sharply since June. Last week Republican Gov. Kay Ivey extended her “Safe at Home” order, which was supposed to expire at the end of June, until the end of July.
The runoffs are also moving forward amid ongoing legal challenges related to voting by mail in both states. The Supreme Court recently blocked a lawsuit and declined to expedite another seeking to expand voting by mail in Texas, which is limited to people who are over 65, have a physical disability, are out of the country or in jail. The high court also stayed a lower court ruling that had stuck down some requirements around applying for absentee ballots in Alabama.
Still (mostly) virtual
Amid the perpetual concern about the pandemic and confusion over legal battles, campaigns in next week’s runoffs have pushed forward, continuing to rely on virtual voter outreach over the phone and online.
Some campaigns have remained entirely virtual even though their states relaxed restrictions on gathering in person.
Those include MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran facing state Sen. Royce West in the Democratic runoff for a Senate seat in Texas. Hegar is holding virtual "get out the vote" rallies in the final days of the race.
This week the Hegar campaign launched "Dialer Week," encouraging volunteers to sign up for a "power hour" of phone banking with the goal of making 100,0000 calls. Volunteers who haven't made phone calls previously can participate in trainings over Zoom.
Olson, who is in a Democratic runoff in Texas' 24th District in the Dallas suburbs, has also kept campaign events largely virtual, aside from gathering volunteers outside at a park to assemble the "Vote Safe Kits." Volunteers wore masks and gloves, and their temperatures were checked before they participated.
"We didn’t want to be the reason that somebody got COVID,” said Olson campaign manager Rachel Perry, explaining why the campaign still limited in-person events even as Texas reopened.
Olson's opponent, Candace Valenzuela, has also kept up her virtual campaign throughout the runoff. Campaign volunteers have been largely focused on reaching voters over the phone and through text messages.
Some Republican candidates have been willing to return to the campaign trail, particularly in rural areas.
In the 13th District, which includes the Texas panhandle, Jackson has been on the road, doing in-person meet-and-greets, according to a source with the campaign. Campaign volunteers are back to canvassing in person. Winegarner has also returned to small group meetings in sparsely populated towns in the rural district.
But, Murphy said, "It’s not back to normal."