From the moment Gov. Doug Ducey called a state of emergency to combat the spread of COVID-19, political candidates, campaign staffs and election officials began to plan how to tackle elections in the coming months.
As public health officials call for social distancing, candidates and ballot campaigns are still collecting signatures with fast deadlines approaching, county recorders are receiving mail-in ballots for the March 17 Presidential Preference Election, poll workers are taking necessary precautions and campaigners are struggling to figure out how to help their candidates get elected in the early-August primaries and even come the general election in November.
All eyes have been on Arizona for the 2020 election cycle as Democrats push for a political shift in the state, but unforeseen circumstances could get in the way of how those ballots will look – at least on a local level.
State and local candidates have until early-April to submit valid signatures from registered voters to get on the ballot, citizen initiatives have until July, and political consultants think now is time to worry about not getting on the ballot.
Tony Valdovinos, the founder of La Machine Field Operations, said he is prepared to end campaigning all together to protect his employees’ health and safety.
He and his company have made a name as a fierce campaigning effort to get Democrats on the ballot and they personally go door-to-door during the season to increase voter turnout. Under a state of emergency, that makes things difficult especially if things escalate to a point where people can’t leave their homes, Valdovinos said.
He said right now his team is collecting signatures for initiatives and candidates, so the ground game hasn’t taken off yet.
“We’re [already] canceling campaign rallies,” Valdovinos said. “What’s most important is [taking] precaution.”
Valdovinos told Arizona Capitol Times that there’s a lot of uncertainty on what can be done at this point, but he is planning for the worst. He is preparing for a bigger challenge on collecting signatures for ballot initiatives and candidates with events getting canceled left and right.
For those in the business of pressing palms and kissing babies, the Coronavirus is going to throw their lives, and this election season, into disarray.
Joe Wolf, a Democratic political consultant who worked on the Mike Bloomberg campaign and is now running his PAC in Arizona, said the virus will impact every aspect of political life, starting with the ability to gather signatures to qualify for the ballot.
“Who wants to touch a pen right now? God knows how many people touched that pen. Who wants to touch a clipboard? This will be very painful for all involved,” he said.
“Who wants to touch a pen right now? God knows how many people touched that pen. Who wants to touch a clipboard? This will be very painful for all involved.” – Joe Wolf, Democratic political consultant
He said the initiatives will feel the pain worse, considering those efforts need between 238,000 and 357,000 signatures, compared to legislative candidates, who need just a few hundred signatures to qualify for the ballot. (Unlike initiatives, politicians have given themselves the ability to collect all of their signatures online).
While candidates can go door-to-door for their signatures, initiatives rely on big events, including sporting events, St. Patrick’s Day events and the Presidential Preference Election. The same goes for voter registration campaigns, which often hit up large public events to try to get more voters on the rolls. But candidates knocking on doors won’t be immune to the fear of the coronavirus either, he said.
“If someone knocks on your door and says, ‘Hey, here’s a clipboard and a pen, please sign.’ It’s still gonna cause a little bit of hesitation. But it probably won’t be as bad as site-based work,” Wolf said. “Like, there’s no way in hell I’m going to ask one of my organizers to go down to a St. Patty’s Day event and hand out a clipboard and a pen to God knows how many people.”
Dawn Penich-Thacker, the spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, is working on another grassroots effort to collect signatures for a ballot initiative and said she fully prepares to see the SOS initiative on the ballot come November barring one potential setback.
“Unless we all get locked into our home because of coronavirus or something, that might be a little bit of a damper,” she said.
And if the Coronavirus is still raging when the election is in full swing, Democrats will have a strong message to hammer the GOP candidates with.
The otherwise booming economy President Donald Trump’s policies helped create is tanking, and if it doesn’t rebound by November, the old adage of “it’s the economy, stupid” will once again be on everyone’s minds. Wolf said Democrats will absolutely hammer that message, if the economy doesn’t recover.
“The argument that so many Republicans have made that ‘I voted for Trump because of my 401K’ — whatever gains you had in your 401K since he took office were probably just wiped out today,” Wolf said.
“If people are losing their jobs, losing their homes and their retirements are going up in smoke like it’s 2008 again, how does that not get thrown at Donald Trump’s feet?” he said, noting that Trump originally implied the threat was a hoax. And the virus gives Democrats an opening to talk about the state of American health care, which polls consistently show is a top issue for Arizona voters and the nation at large.
Republican political consultant Chuck Coughlin agreed that if the scheduled April and July deadlines happen as planned there will likely be candidates and initiatives that won’t make the ballot. But even attempting to extend those deadlines could cost a lot of money, which Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said won’t happen anyway.
Coughlin said petition gathering at public events will be problematic because that’s where it is generally most successful.
A few candidates are starting to take their own precautions by canceling campaign events or closing their offices.
Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she’s going to suspend all “face-to-face” campaigning and Anita Malik a Democrat in a tough primary challenge in Congressional District 6 has already taken the step to shut down her campaign offices, and start working remotely. She could not be reached for comment, but in a press release also shared to her Twitter account said she was canceling all meet and greet events and volunteer events.
“We’ve built a remote, distributed team of volunteers for #AZ06. If you want to work from home, let us know. We’ll be having digital training & digital voter conversations,” she wrote.
That’s not an approach Valdovinos thinks will be effective for him because a big part of his success is being able to speak to voters in both English and Spanish and help educate them on “who and what’s on the ballot.”
“This year is one of those enormous years for a lot of referendums on the ballot. So it is going to reduce our operation and we’re going to have to most likely move into digital and phone banking,” he said, which makes them less effective.
“I think the number one concern is people’s health and safety, including ours and our families. So, if it comes down to it, and we don’t have an election year, so be it. But, ultimately, I think it’s gonna be a very innovative way to reach out to voters this year,” he said.
Coughlin said when it comes to voting in person, whether for city elections, the PPE or looking ahead to the August primary – which is the earliest it has ever been – it’s likely poll workers will be wearing gloves and at a minimum there will be hand sanitizer stations.
To put it simply, Coughlin said things are going to be problematic. “Particularly for older people,” he said, adding that they are the ones who tend to vote in person rather than early by mail. How things are handled for same day voting will come down to the county recorders, he said.
Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said that while the situation may be alarming to some, it will be business as usual for his office for now, but Election Day will come with a few key tweaks.
“Verifying votes in the age of COVID-19 was just like we did it before,” Fontes said. “Nothing changes in early voting, but Election Day is different and it’s yet another reason why we should be a vote at home state.”
Fontes said 65 percent of Maricopa County poll workers are over 60 years old; he’s concerned for their safety and the safety of voters and said he asked the state to mail ballots to everyone to minimize unnecessary contact and further control things. But, that’s not happening. So, his staff is training polling workers to wipe down workstations, thoroughly clean polling places before opening and after closing, working on backup staffing for people who don’t want to work, as well as keeping staff updated on what federal and state health experts are saying about the virus.
Elections officials in the county are encouraging people to vote earlier than later if they want to avoid crowds and to use drop-off locations if they do have to come in person.
Regardless of the scare, Fontes doesn’t think this will affect turnout, as more Democrats have voted in this election than in 2016. That turnout is evidence to Fontes that mail-in ballots work and that it’s time to ditch what he called an old model.
“You know, there’s no getting around the fact that everyone who’s already voted has already voted,” Fontes said. “It’s this insistence that we have on polling places where we have logistical issues, personnel issues; now we have health and safety issues. Folks hang on to old models for the wrong reasons when we have perfectly good new models that are more secure or less expensive, and clearly in this circumstance, they’re healthier.”
Maricopa County had 571,045 ballots requested and 251,210, or about 44 percent, have been returned.
Kathren Coleman, Fontes’ deputy county recorder, said as of March 12 the county has already surpassed the 2016 PPE vote totals.
Fontes and his staff are also closing and moving five polling locations out of elder care facilities to minimize any risk of spreading the virus to them. As far as Fontes is concerned, the county is ready for anything.
“What’s going on right now is really a question of, ‘are we prepared for the worst case scenario?’ And I can tell you we’re prepared for everything but Godzilla.” – Adrian Fontes, Maricopa County Recorder
“What’s going on right now is really a question of, ‘are we prepared for the worst case scenario?’ And I can tell you we’re prepared for everything but Godzilla.”
Yavapai County Elections Director Lynn Constabile said while her county has a larger elderly population than most, her county is different.
“The elderly population votes by mail, they don’t go out,” Constabile said, adding that the county expects about 5,000 voters to show up on Election Day.
“Usually, we see working people, around 20 to 55, that are at the polls,” she said.
For those who do show up, Constabile said polling places will encourage people to use drop-off boxes for mail-in ballots instead of going inside. Polling staff is also being told to remember to not touch their faces, eyes or mouths and to wash their hands, as well as cleaning touched surfaces.
Constabile said voters should take precautions but rest easy knowing they are doing everything they can to ensure things run safely and as usual.
“People shouldn’t be afraid to come out and vote,” Constabile said.
Yellow Sheet Report Editor Hank Stephenson and reporter Julia Shumway contributed to this story.