SHERIDAN — Among the events requiring drastic adaptations since COVID-19 swept across the U.S., Wyoming’s Democratic presidential preference caucus switched to a 100% mail-in voting process. Senatorial candidates say the voting process will likely remain sound but not unchallenged in the coming months.
Wyoming Democratic Party Chair Joe Barbuto said despite obstacles a pandemic poses to a caucus, the existing mail-in ballot process makes the transition a bit easier and more people have participated by mail this year than in the 2016 caucus.
Amid quick adjustments based on the spread of COVID-19, Barbuto said he has maintained “productive communication” with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office and county clerks, looking forward to the possibility of conducting state elections by mail.
In addition to traditional advertising methods to encourage voting, Barbuto described virtual phone banks as “a terrific way to connect with folks,” adding to the relentless virtual component of today’s political environment. Those who have already announced their candidacy are looking to virtual methods of connecting with potential voters, he said.
“Wyoming Democrats are always up to the task of rising to a challenge,” Barbuto said.
Democratic senatorial candidates Merav Ben-David and Yana Ludwig are adapting their campaigns to reach potential voters, with some difficulty, though the situation affords constituents an opportunity to hear from their candidates as to how they would manage such a crisis in office.
Scientist and University of Wyoming professor Ben-David was the second candidate to announce her run back in January. Without access to public events, canvassing and in-person meet-and-greets, Ben-David said it has been difficult to get a grassroots campaign off the ground.
“I have little opportunity to engage with Wyomingites of various stripes,” she said in an email.
Asking for campaign funding in a time when many stress over making their next rent payment is a tough sell. Ben-David said such a financial scenario provides a substantial advantage to candidates who can fall back on personal funds to purchase television ads and afford field operators.
Ludwig, whose professional history is in nonprofit work, said citizens should not have to choose between their health and their vote.
Ludwig said the pandemic reveals “serious fissure lines” in the U.S. health care system and worker/renter protections.
“If you need to go to work or you will not be able to eat, or possibly lose your housing, you are going to go to work,” Ludwig said in an email.
Ben-David speculated if the pandemic extends into the summer months, she expects to see a “major disruption” in citizens’ ability to vote. Fewer opportunities to interact with candidates could translate to reduced motivation to vote, she said.
If the pandemic crisis carries through to November, polling stations may be difficult to maintain in COVID-19-prevalent areas, which would be a crushing blow to the economy and health care system, she said. Regardless of how long the pandemic lasts, many potential voters may not be willing to miss work to vote in the primary and general elections.
Ben-David advocated for making election day a paid holiday nationwide. Early and absentee voting, same-day registration and other avenues within the state’s existing system should allow the Democratic Party to effectively mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic on the voting process, she said.
Ludwig said she is pleased with the Wyoming Democratic Party’s quick response and grateful for the 40-day early voting period for the general election.
“We may well be still (or again) dealing with this pandemic in November, and those 40 days will give us a chance to fully participate in voting while maintaining good social distancing practices,” Ludwig said.
Ludwig said mobilizing people to vote early includes reaching out to new voters and those still searching for a candidate who speaks to their needs. While taking the crisis seriously, Ludwig encouraged citizens to check in with their elders and “get creative” with compassion and community spirit.
Ben-David thanked the Wyoming delegation for voting in favor of recently-passed stimulus bills but was critical of them, which she claimed, at several trillion dollars, will increase the national deficit to never-before-seen levels.
Ben-David said distribution of stimulus dollars will require careful monitoring and oversight to ensure money set aside to “rescue” large corporations will be paid back and avoid burdening future generations with the large debt.
Ludwig also spoke critically of recent actions by current legislators — calling the bail out for large banks and airlines hypocritical and “appalling,” against the average worker who, because of low wages, likely could not compose an emergency fund for an unexpected situation like a global pandemic.
Speaking from her experience as a scientist, Ben-David said COVID-19 is not equivalent to seasonal cold and flu viruses encountered annually.
The virus is “relatively more infectious,” because few are immune, each infected person sheds copies to their environment and takes more time to recover — roughly 14 or more days of intensive medical care, she said.
Ben-David said she understands Gov. Mark Gordon’s reluctance to impose a shelter in place order, but called for Wyoming residents to physically distance themselves from others and utilize the state’s open spaces to help flatten the curve of the pandemic and relieve strain on health care services.
Anyone registered as a Democrat prior to March 10 should have already received a ballot, while those registered between March 11-20 should be sent one automatically in the mail.
Requests to replace a ballot must be sent to proper authorities by the deadline of March 31 at wyodems.org/2020caucus.