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Virus surges in US battleground states

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.

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 hospitalisations, leading to the opening of a field hospital to handle COVID-19 patients. Governor Tony Evers said he plans to activate the Wisconsin National Guard to fill any staffing shortages at election sites.

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 of 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,” Moritz 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 Centre.

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

In some states, voting early has still 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.

Voters in several Midwest states contested by US 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.

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 sanitised 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 in April provided lessons that were guiding current preparations.

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.”

Data from the Elections Project indicates more than 21 million Americans have already cast their ballots in the US election.

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