Politics

Coronavirus cases surge in swing states as early voting kicks into high gear

Key Points
  • Coronavirus cases are spiking in the most fiercely contested battlegrounds of the presidential election, just as voters head out in droves to cast their ballots.
  • Turnout levels are breaking records: More than 69 million Americans have already voted, including roughly one-third who voted in person.
  • But the highly contagious coronavirus, a central issue of the 2020 campaign, is also on the rise in some key swing states where in-person voter participation is highest.
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Coronavirus cases are spiking in the most fiercely contested battlegrounds of the presidential election, just as voters cast their ballots in droves.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have one week left until Election Day, and early voting is in full swing in dozens of states. Turnout levels are breaking records: More than 69 million Americans have already voted, over half the total of all voters in 2016. Roughly one-third of early voters this year did so in person.

But the highly contagious coronavirus, a central issue of the 2020 campaign, is also on the rise in some key swing states where in-person voter participation is highest.

The United States, which has reported more cases and deaths from Covid-19 than any other country, is now in the midst of its third surge in cases since the pandemic began earlier this year. More than 8.7 million cases and at least 225,739 deaths from the virus have been tallied in the U.S., data from Johns Hopkins University show.

The latest wave of cases appears to be crashing hardest over states in the West and the Midwest, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins and the Covid Tracking Project.

Among the most hotly contested swing states, Wisconsin is facing the largest increase in cases and deaths. In the past week, the Badger State reported a proportionally higher number of cases than nearly anywhere else in the country, except for in North Dakota and South Dakota, according to the CDC.

Since mid-September, Covid-19 deaths have increased 47% in Wisconsin, Johns Hopkins data show.

"We've been preparing for this for months," Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said in a phone call with CNBC.

Wisconsin has applied numerous safety measures to its voting processes. Poll workers are outfitted with masks and face shields, and they are required to regularly sanitize pens, touch screens and other surfaces. Voters are offered hand sanitizer at intervals, and painter's tape is used at polling locations to mark where voters should stand in line.

But Magney noted that voters cannot be forced to wear face coverings at the polls, per state laws. He suggested that people may be contracting the virus "because they're not following the things that are recommended by the CDC."

"Certainly anybody would have concern for the rise in cases," Magney said, but "we don't believe that it will impact the election itself."

Trump, who in 2016 narrowly beat then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, traveled to the state Tuesday to host a large, in-person campaign rally. Health experts, including those in his own administration, have warned that the events could greatly increase the spread of the virus.

The president was taken off the campaign trail earlier this month after revealing he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for Covid-19. But he has since resumed a busy travel schedule in an effort to catch up to Biden, who has maintained his lead in the national polls.

Biden's campaign has been careful to comply with the social distancing guidelines recommended by the CDC and other health experts. The former vice president has traveled less and hosted relatively few in-person events, none of which allowed for large crowds to gather, in the final days of the campaign.

Trump's campaign, meanwhile, has disregarded some of those guidelines with regard to the rallies. While masks have been provided to attendees, swaths of the tightly packed crowds at the events have refused to wear them.

At the same time, Trump has mocked Biden for speaking to smaller numbers of people, contrasting the images from their respective campaign events as evidence that the Democratic nominee is failing to drum up enthusiasm.

The president has also complained in recent days that too much attention has been paid to the coronavirus by the media, and he has suggested that the focus on the pandemic is politically motivated.

Numerous states have expanded mail-in voting access in order to allow people to cast their ballots without fear of contracting the virus while standing in a long line. The president has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that such rules will lead to widespread voter fraud. His campaign is encouraging Americans to vote in person.

Trump has also claimed that the recent rise in Covid-19 cases is merely due to an increase in tests being performed. But that's not true: Cases have risen this month even when testing rates have slightly dipped. The United States in mid-October recorded the highest number of hospitalizations in nearly two months, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

Fewer voters remain undecided than at this point in the 2016 cycle. But the recent surge in cases might be enough to push some of those swing-state voters toward Biden, who has consistently received higher marks than Trump on the question of which candidate would better handle the pandemic.

Other swing states, including Michigan and North Carolina, are also seeing an upswing in cases. And outbreaks in some states could affect down-ballot races there, as well — such as in the tight Montana Senate race between Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines and and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.