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COVID-19 Makes Face To Face Campaigning Difficult

NOEL KING, HOST:

Getting out the vote sounds like a tired political cliche, but it really is about getting out - door knocking, talking to voters face-to-face. During a pandemic, that is both hard and risky, but local campaigns in Ohio are still managing to pull it off. Here's Nick Castele with member station WCPN ideastream.

NICK CASTELE, BYLINE: When you're a down-ballot candidate - that is, someone not named Joe Biden or Donald Trump - you might spend the summer reminding members of the neighborhood Democratic or Republican club that you're on the ticket, too. And this year, you'll have to make sure you're not on mute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES SLIFE: Why don't we just - I'd love for both of the people on with us right now to be able to just say a little bit more about themselves because they are running in this election.

CASTELE: This is a meeting of the Cleveland Ward 17 Democratic Club held on Zoom and broadcast on Facebook. Ward 17 on the city's west side boasts Cleveland's highest voter turnout. But the club doesn't plan to bend voters' ears on their doorsteps this election. Instead, they're putting their hopes in phone calls, text messages and postcards. Club member Nora Kelley is helping to lead the effort. She admits it's a big loss not to meet in person and build camaraderie and enthusiasm.

NORA KELLEY: Just to feel the energy of other folks and the commitment that other folks have, I think, is really important in terms of breathing life into a campaign but also keeping people nourished and engaged in the process.

CASTELE: The club printed up door hangers that say, vote early, flatten the curve, with a form to request an absentee ballot. Kelley says it's an effort to avoid crowded polling places and give election boards plenty of time to mail out ballots.

KELLEY: Really encouraging everyone in the neighborhood to the extent possible to vote by mail so that folks are going to be safe.

CASTELE: Absentee voting became especially critical in the primary, when COVID-19 led state officials to close polling places and extend the election in the eleventh hour.

DONTE GIBBS: That election process was wonky. Like, I don't know a word to describe it.

CASTELE: This summer, Donte Gibbs joined a group of volunteers to stuff packages with cloth masks, information on the census and instructions for absentee voting. They're distributing tens of thousands of these to people in the Cleveland area, he says.

GIBBS: And so we really wanted to get in front of it for this next election because there were multiple steps that you had to make.

CASTELE: The Ohio Republican Party took its campaign digital this spring, keeping in touch with voters through phone calls, video chats and mobile apps, says Chairman Jane Timken. In June, the party ventured out to knock on doors again while taking precautions, she says.

JANE TIMKEN: The reports I get are that people have been pretty courteous and polite. And our field staff wear masks, and they stand back. And they're able to ask the voters questions about the upcoming election.

CASTELE: Timken expects an increase in early and absentee voting this time around, too, and says field staff will have absentee request forms for those who want them.

TIMKEN: I'm grateful for the technology. But, you know, we have a top-notch field staff, and we like to call them the Buckeye Battalion. And there's none better.

CASTELE: But for all the focus on casting ballots early, voting booths will be open in November, and election boards are searching for people to staff polling places on Election Day.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Castele in Cleveland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.