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Virus surges in key battleground states as US election nears

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MADISON: Rising coronavirus cases
in
key presidential
battleground
states a little more than two weeks before
Election Day are the latest worry for
election officials and voters fearing chaos or exposure to the
virus at polling places despite months of planning.

The prospect of poll workers backing out at the last minute because they are infected, quarantined or scared of getting sick has local
election officials
in Midwest
states such
as Iowa and Wisconsin opening more early voting locations, recruiting backup workers and encouraging voters to plan for long lines and other inconveniences.

Confirmed
virus cases and deaths are on the rise
in the swing
states of Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin broke records this week for new coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations, leading to the opening of a field hospital to handle COVID-19 patients. Gov. Tony Evers said he plans to activate the Wisconsin National Guard to fill any staffing shortages at
election sites.

While holding a competitive presidential
election during a pandemic is “tricky business,” the governor said, “People are ready to have this
election over, and I think it will be a successful
election with very few hiccups.”

In Iowa, Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz opened additional early voting sites
in and around Davenport, the state’s third-largest city, to try to reduce the number people casting ballots on
Election Day and to keep the
virus from spreading
in large precincts.

“We have to remember that there is this thing called COVID,” Mortiz said. “Our numbers aren’t getting any better. The more people I can get to early vote, the better.” The pandemic’s recent trajectory close to home has some voters reconsidering a lifetime habit of entering a voting booth on
Election Day.

Tim Tompkins, a welding engineer
in Iowa, took the day off work to cast an early ballot at the Bettendorf Community Center. Tompkins, 62, said he and his wife, Pat, were afraid of coronavirus exposure
in
Election Day crowds but determined to vote, so they brought their own sanitizer to the community center Friday.

“We’d go through a vat of boiling COVID to get the current president out of office,” Tompkins said.

In some
states, voting early still has carried health risks. Voters
in Georgia, Texas and elsewhere encountered hours-long lines that required congregating with hundreds of other people this week.
In Georgia, nearly a quarter of the workers
in a warehouse where Fulton County’s
election supplies are kept and voting equipment is readied tested positive for COVID-19.

The positive test results for 13 of the preparation center’s 60 workers shouldn’t delay
election operations, county elections director Rick Barron said. Barron said Georgia’s most populous county is working to hire replacement staff and to implement additional safety measures, including daily rapid testing.

Voters
in several Midwest
states contested by U.S. President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, encountered lines when they went to cast early ballots on Friday. Some described the decision to vote this year
as one that required deliberation and even courage.

Robert Baccus, 52, an independent contractor from Columbus, Ohio, was among hundreds
in line at the Franklin County Board of Elections early voting center. He said he doesn’t trust voting by mail, so early voting was his best option for casting a ballot while trying to safeguard his health.

“It’s a choice between life and death, really,” said Baccus, a supporter of Democratic nominee Joe Biden. “We could not do it and our votes won’t be counted. It’s a choice I’ve got to make for my children and grandchildren.” Vickie Howard-Penn, 50, a TSA worker from Columbus, said it was obvious Friday that the record
virus cases Ohio reported this week had not deterred fellow voters.

“Did you see the lines? There are three lines trying to get up this way,” Howard-Penn said outside the Franklin County
election board. She also planned to vote for Biden.

At some polling places, workers wore masks, gloves and face shields. Lines and voting stations were set up six feet apart and the stations and pens were sanitized between users.

However, poll workers are not required to wear masks everywhere.
In Kansas, the secretary of state’s office did not make masks mandatory at the polls, drawing objections from some voters, particularly older ones.

Election officials
in Wisconsin said the state’s presidential primary provided lessons that were guiding current preparations.

Wisconsin held its presidential primary early
in the pandemic after Democratic attempts to delay the April voting were thwarted. Voters waited
in long lines
in Milwaukee and elsewhere because a worker shortage meant there were fewer polling places.

Several
election officials said they were confident they would have enough poll workers, sanitation supplies and protective gear to ensure
Election Day goes smoothly and safely. But they are also encouraging voters to cast their ballots early, if they can.

“Our clerks and communities have learned a lot since the April
election,” Waukesha County Clerk Meg Wartman said. “Our community members, our voters, are a lot more confident about how they can be out (safely)….I wouldn’t want people to be afraid to go to the polls because I think we’re better prepared.”

Wisconsin voter Jon Gausewitz, 37, still plans to vote
in person on
Election Day. He said that could change if the
virus situation worsens where he lives outside Madison, the state capital.

“I’m just watching the numbers and rates and hospitalizations, that sort of thing, to see where we’re at,” Gausewitz said. “I’m still feeling pretty safe about it.”
In Ohio, county
election boards have put elaborate plans
in place to keep voters safe during
in-person voting that began Oct. 6, Ohio Association of
Election Officials spokesman Aaron Ockerman said.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose updated a 61-point health and safety plan
in late September that provides boards with detailed guidance on sanitation, use of personal protective gear, social distancing and other measures.

Anxiety among older Ohio voters may have helped drive the huge turnout at an online AARP-sponsored town hall with the secretary of state this week. More than 15,000 people dialed
in, peppering the elections chief with technical questions about voting by mail.

As reassurance, LaRose provided his personal email address to participants and urged them to write with questions. Elections officials are preparing lists of reserve poll workers who are willing to be called on at the last minute.

Minnesota
election officials have recruited all 30,000 poll workers they believe are needed to run the general
election. They have cross-trained numerous others, including county and city workers,
as reserves
in case they’re needed, Risikat Adesaogun, a spokeswoman for Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, said.

Officials
in the
battleground
states reported no plans to close polling places, even if
virus cases continue to spike.

“Obviously, we would try to open
as many polling places
as possible,” Nick Custodio, a deputy commissioner for Philadelphia’s
election office, said. “We don’t want to close polling places unless that is what is advised.”

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