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On the US campaign trail: 'We are watching democracy unfold'

Lauren Gambino, Oliver Laughland, Kenya Evelyn and Ankita Rao
·7-min read

Lauren Gambino, political correspondent, Washington DC

The political year really began for us in Des Moines, Iowa. What felt like every aspiring Democrat in the party was running for the party’s nomination – and then there was Joe Biden, the frontrunner right up until the games actually began. The Iowa caucuses are always a quirky affair: Iowans gather in gyms and churches to support and persuade others to join their candidate – but this year a disastrous and unprecedented reporting meltdown delayed the results for weeks, effectively nullifying the relevance of the whole byzantine affair.

And just like that, the wildest campaign season in modern history was under way. Weeks later, Biden staged an incredible comeback to overtake Bernie Sanders, disappointing Republicans who hoped Democrats would nominate a democratic socialist. The primary was cut short by the arrival of the pandemic. Campaign events ground to a halt. Biden’s headquarters moved from Philadelphia to his basement, where his campaign set up a TV studio. The Trump show began, with the president leading extraordinary briefings on coronavirus, during which he famously suggested disinfectants as a potential cure. (He insists it was a joke.)

I was one of just a handful of reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, to see Biden deliver his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. There was no audience, just us. The fireworks display afterwards was a brief reminder of what it used to feel like to be on the campaign trail – but those moments were few and far between. Now I cover the presidential debates from my living room and only travel with Biden when it’s our turn as part of a pool of reporters who follows the candidate.

Protests against racial injustice, the death of supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis have all threatened to upend the presidential race and yet they haven’t. With days left before the election, Biden continues to hold an advantage over Trump, despite all that has happened over the last 10 months.

Whether Trump can again pull off a stunning upset remains to be seen. Four years ago, I waited for Hillary Clinton at the glass-ceilinged Javits Center in New York, surrounded by women and girls in pant suits. (She ultimately never came.) This year, I may be covering the end of this wild election from a hotel room in Wilmington – or, very possibly, my couch.

Oliver Laughland, southern bureau chief, New Orleans

Covering this election has been one of the most challenging assignments of my career. And it’s not just because I am driving thousands of miles during the pandemic to visit swing states around the country. Presenting our Anywhere But Washington series, with film-maker Tom Silverstone, has been an eye-opening experience taking me to some of the most fascinating but deeply fractured communities in America. From the bitter fight to win the suburbs of Dallas to the retirement communities of central Florida, where political golf-cart rallies often turn nasty, the divisiveness of the Trump era has been plain to see.

Pervasive disinformation has also been a disturbing factor in most of our video dispatches. In Georgia I watched first-hand as voting rights activists battled against QAnon conspiracy theories taking root among some voters, and I interviewed a Republican congressional candidate who stormed out as I asked her about the misinformation she was pushing as part of her campaign.

But the consequences of Donald Trump’s war on facts were most poignant when I visited the old offices of the Vindicator newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio, which closed in 2019, making the city the largest in America now without a daily paper. It’s a region that Trump promised to deliver for, and there is now almost no one holding him accountable for his failures there.

But in every community I’ve gone to, the enthusiasm and passion for politics has been just as evident. Take Ebony Carter, a 25-year-old first-time candidate running in a rural Georgia seat that Democrats have not contested in six years. She’s out canvassing with her de facto campaign manager – her mum – knocking on every door in her area in a bid to flip the district. “Why am I doing this?” she said during a day of campaigning. “Because somebody has to.”

Kenya Evelyn, breaking news reporter

The presidential race underscores that “Representation Matters” isn’t some meaningless mantra. Rather, it reflects the urgency to authentically capture the pulse of the people most affected by policy. Black Americans are disproportionately affected by three national crises – a coronavirus pandemic, recession, and racial uprising – yet are still most often the people left out of policy, the communities excluded from news coverage, and the perspectives that are most easily stereotyped and overgeneralised.

But Black and brown voters are stepping forward to hold parties and politicians – and anyone else who conflates proximity to a community with being for and of that community – more accountable to their vote. As a member of America’s most reliable voting bloc – Black women – I hope to have captured that demand for African American agency with our Black Voting Power series, highlighting the Black men and women at the forefront of the fight for voting rights and calls for institutional change.

We’ve reached the point in the 2020 race when everyone from reporters and pundits to politicos now parachutes in to these same neglected communities. But if this election cycle shows us anything, it’s that proximity to a community doesn’t guarantee a commitment to it, and that call for change will ring out well past election day.

Ankita Rao, voting rights editor

When we launched our voting rights project, The Fight to Vote, last year, the obstacles facing voters already seemed menacing. A supreme court ruling in 2013 had opened the door for states with deeply entrenched racism to enact new policies around elections without checks and balances. Thousands of polling stations closed, often in majority-Black areas, new voter ID laws introduced confusing restrictions, and voter intimidation was rampant. In 2016, when Donald Trump was elected, the impact of these voter suppression tactics were clear.

A record number of Americans have voted early in an effort to safeguard their choice and their health

Ankita Rao

Then 2020 happened, and with it the pandemic and economic devastation. Suddenly the question was not just will all voters have equal access to voting, but will the country be able to pull off an election at all? Congress fought over money for local officials , leaving the presidential election thoroughly underfunded. Trump railed at mail-in voting, one of the few safe ways to vote as Covid-19 cases continued to rise across the country. Voters scrambled to register in states such as Texas where online registration still isn’t allowed.

When the election officially started a few weeks ago, with mail-in voting and early voting starting across the country, we were ready for anything. We mapped out scenarios where Trump refused to concede, and where Democrats unleashed an army of lawyers to make sure each vote was counted. We launched a tracker to count mail-in ballots in battleground states, in an attempt to locate and analyse how ballots were being sent, accepted, rejected and counted. We enumerated the active court cases that will decide when and how votes are counted – cases still going on with just days until 3 November. And we prepared ourselves, and our readers, for a reality in which we would not know who the new president was on election day.

We are watching democracy unfold in front of our eyes, despite every effort to stop it. A record number of Americans have voted early, most of them Democrats, in an effort to safeguard their choice and their health. States such as Texas, where politicians have tried to make it as difficult to vote as possible, are seeing record turnout, with new voters casting ballots for the first time. Does this mean the people’s will has succeeded over voter suppression? Definitely not. But after months of scrutinising an election process that’s often taken for granted, it’s a sign that our country values the right to vote above all, and will fight to protect it.