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Howes: COVID, conflict define ‘crazy’ year, drive extraordinary turnout

November 4, 2020

The Detroit News

By Daniel Howes

The battle won’t end when all the votes are counted.

It’s just beginning — the latest chapter in a watershed year that began with a presidential impeachment largely forgotten. It’s now swamped by the metastasizing implications of a global coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 230,000 lives in the United States, upended economies around the world and defined the Trump-Biden race for the White House.

“Pretty crazy, huh?” said Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Ballenger Report political newsletter and a 55-year watcher of politics in Michigan and around the country. “This is unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Crazy only begins to describe it. And yet, voting at many sites around Michigan unspooled Tuesday in a way that felt both orderly and familiar, under seasonable temperatures and a bluebird November sky that didn’t keep would-be voters like Nick Hannawa home.

“It’s all about the person to me,” said the 33-year-old Bloomfield Township attorney, a two-time supporter of President Donald Trump. “I vote for Republican presidents and Democratic prosecutors. I want to put an end to this whole chaos. I don’t like the government having so much control over the people. Obviously, the president feels that way, too.”

Morning rushes and long lines at polling places gave way to quieter sites in the afternoon, a likely marker of record early voting and spiking coronavirus infections across the state. Voters moved quickly through short lines in Detroit and Southfield, though additional poll workers were deployed to Dearborn, Pontiac, Grand Rapids and other cities for support.

The summation of many voters was an eagerness to see the Republican president and his controversial rhetoric voted out of office and replaced by Democratic challenger Joe Biden — voters such as Janee Whitfield, 32, of Detroit: “He’s not for the people,” she said flatly, referring to Trump’s response to the pandemic and other issues.

To recapture the magic of four years ago, Trump capped his campaign with a midnight rally in Grand Rapids, the prelude to his improbable ’16 win, predicting: “We’re going to win the state of Michigan so easily.” And California Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, worked several appearances in Michigan’s largest city on Election Day in a bid to push Democratic-leaning Detroiters to the polls.

Still, reality intrudes. With apologies to Queen Elizabeth II, the 2020 election is poised to punctuate this country’s Annus horribilis. This is our horrible year of sickness and death, street protests and racial reckoning, broken trust and broken institutions like the U.S. Postal Service, and polarization and partisan conflict over the Trump presidency and filling yet another Supreme Court vacancy.

All of it, and more, is capped by economic turmoil, by a mountain of lawsuits challenging new vote-counting rules in many states, and by an election delivering record turnout around the country even as the president of the United States repeatedly, openly questions the legitimacy of the election itself.

“This is a very important election historically,” said Michael Traugott, research professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies, “because (Trump) has raised issues recently about the fundamental integrity of the U.S. electoral system. There are bad things that could happen on Nov. 4 that involve him and statements he could make.”

Helpful it’s not. The downward spiral continues in American politics and culture, fueling collective exhaustion laced with rising anxiety and fears that violence looms however election is decided: by Election Day, more than 101 million Americans already had cast their votes.

That’s pretty hard evidence folks understand the stakes in this election. It shows liberalized voting rules in many states (including Michigan) are combining with voter motivation and likely fears of coronavirus exposure to change the way America votes — perhaps permanently.

“We’re certainly moving in the direction of seeing November third — or the first Tuesday in November — being the last day to vote, being the day the polls close,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told The Detroit News. “It’s a new day for democracy in Michigan, and this year has certainly proven that. Not just because of the pandemic, but because we’re seeing voters engaged at levels they’ve never been engaged before.”

As many as 5.5 million Michiganians are expected to vote this year, she said, two-thirds of which are likely to have voted early when all the numbers are tallied. Some 3.2 million voters requested early ballots. Before polls opened, an estimated 3 million already had voted, rendering moot for those voters last-days swings across the state by Trump, Biden and his old boss, Barack Obama.

Credit the pandemic, its cases number setting new daily records in the final stretch of the campaign, as much as new voting rules. Credit the pandemic, too, for the worst five-day run on Wall Street last week since its March implosion. Taken together, those two sets of numbers undercut a core Trump argument for reelection: namely, his stewardship of an improving economy powered by booming equity markets looking past the pandemic.

Not at the moment, the rebounds of Monday and Tuesday notwithstanding. What’s remarkable is how well Trump’s support has navigated a once-in-a-century pandemic whose staggering infection numbers include the president, his press secretary and the vice president’s chief of staff. How many others would have buckled under the strain, or seen their approval numbers sink to historic lows?

Not many other presidents would have emerged from COVID-19 unapologetic and comparatively unconcerned about the raging epidemic; committed to continuing the campaign rallies, despite spreading infections, that energize the president as much as his supporters; conjured a caricature of his rival as an addled socialist masterminding corrupt self-dealing in China and Ukraine.

Equally remarkable: so many of our fellow citizens. They’re the people asked to wear masks and social distance until further notice, frankly. To vote amid fears of infection, foreign meddling and fierce political and legal battles between Republicans and Democrats. To power the economy and educate their children enough to keep going, but not enough to spread the virus.

It’s tempting to call this election “the most consequential” in — what? This generation, or nearly three? More than 1968, laden with Vietnam, confrontation at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, riots in Detroit and other major American cities the year before? More than 1980, when a former California governor named Reagan closed in the final days to unseat the Democratic incumbent during the Iran hostage crisis?

Doesn’t matter. The election of 2020 is consequential for us here, now. Our rancorous politics are not the creation of one man or a social movement opposing him. They’re symptoms of a political culture too comfortable with crazy, inured to what your mother might call bad behavior.

“We’ve become numb to outrageous behavior, outrageous events, outrageous things,” says Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber and head of the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush. “We’re all on edge. And we’re less interested in a calm and thoughtful conversation. No one is rewarding that.”

He calls it the “reality televisation” of politics and policy. It’s a coarsening of public life that muffles the capacity to shock. But it also enables many of us to better manage the unforeseen stresses of pandemic-induced lockdowns, the economic pain and social dislocation they cause … until further notice.

It’s exhausting. Lee Meyerhoffer, 39, strolled out of the polling place at East Grand Rapids High School on Tuesday in a suburban area of Kent County, a place both presidential campaigns were watching in Michigan. But neither Trump nor Biden notched the vote of Meyerhoffer, who said he was disappointed by the choices.

“I think I speak for most people: We’re just sick of all of this division,” he said. “And I know that our current president doesn’t help it. He kinda’ stokes it” — a chief reason the former Marine wrote in the name of comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan instead of voting for one of the major-party candidates: “It’s just a matter of principle.”

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