The Highway 98 and Highway 111 intersection in Calexico is a popular spot in the city for election campaign signs. Campaigning in the age of COVID-19 has changed how candidates are reaching voters. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO
IMPERIAL VALLEY — Although candidates’ campaign signs can be seen at Imperial Valley intersections and along roadways like any other election season, this year is anything but typical thanks to COVID-19.
During previous election years, by now one might see candidates meeting and greeting the public in various venues such as through public events, forums, and face-to-face visits at homes. But conditions have changed and have required candidates to find creative methods of reaching their constituents without a lot of up-close contact or among large gatherings.
While businesses are opening and gatherings have begun to slowly begin again after five-plus months of stay-at-home orders, the transmission of COVID is still a concern for many, and physical distancing and facial coverings are still required by the county amid declining rates of coronavirus transmissions.
But that hasn’t slowed the democratic process, as a general election is just about eight weeks away.
“The campaign tools previously used have been stripped away for obvious reasons,” said Ryan D. Childers, who is in a run-off for the Division 2 seat on the Imperial Irrigation District board against J.B. Hamby. “As a result, we have had to pivot to other means of voter engagement.”
“Yes, the normal before was to maximize face-to-face interaction,” stated Raul Ureña, a candidate for the Calexico City Council. “In person is the best — you have the visual, the hand gestures, and the voice — all those things send a message. Not the same now with COVID.”
IID Division 4 Director Erik Ortega, having campaign experience from his previous runs for Calexico Unified School District board and his first IID term, is in a run-off with Javier Gonzalez.
“I am not new to campaigning, but COVID is a new wrench in the road. New rules make reaching voters a challenge. My campaign has adapted using social media to deliver message. We all need to adapt,” Ortega said.
For Imperial County Registrar of Voters Debbie Porter, who has worked in the county elections department for 23 years, this year has shown her one thing for certain.
“You really had to step up as a candidate this time,” Porter said, adding those seeking office had to work to get on the ballot and the “hand holding” county election officials might have done before was a thing of the past this year.
Safely Campaigning Through COVID
Candidates are safely delivering their messages through this pandemic.
Although this is Murray Anderson’s first-ever political campaign, the candidate for Holtville City Council is well aware of what’s expected of him.
“I think using masks and not being able to shake hands is understood and expected nowadays. Obviously when you go to someone’s door, you have a mask on and step back to respect the social-distancing guidelines,” Anderson said.
Childers has plenty of experience campaigning, and the Nov. 3 election will be his fourth campaign. He feels that COVID has completely transformed the way he communicates with voters. He now looks for a safe way to deliver his message in a way that voters are comfortable.
“In addition to social media outlets, in the coming days we will reach out to voters through mail, telephone banking, and other means of providing voters (our) message without physical contact,” Childers said.
“I have pledged not to do physical events, and we’ve managed to do this,” said Ureña. “Face to face is better, but the health of community comes first.”
“With raised concerns about basic safety during COVID, not sure how wise it is for candidates to go out and knock on doors … too many unknowns … especially in Calexico as we have been hit harder than other cities in Imperial Valley,” Ortega added.
Margarita Magallanes, candidate for Calexico Unified School District board, is a first-time campaigner.
“As a business owner, I am used to hand shaking, building a bond, a relationship with people,” Magallanes said. “As a candidate, I cannot go up to them. I have to leave enough space, a security measure. If they (public) can’t hear me, I go farther back and remove my face mask so words can be more clear.”
New Strategies for Spreading the Word
Yard signs and banners are one method of spreading the word, but some candidates are trying to think outside the box to reach their constituents. The following are just few examples some candidates will be doing to reach voters hearts and minds.
Enrique “Kiki” Alvarado, who was first elected in 2016 to the Calexico Unified School District board, said “my campaign will change closer to the election date. I will be utilizing (vehicle) parades, driving out and honking.
“Last time I ran it was grassroots, but this time I will be more dependent on media — newspaper outlets and news channels — to get out my message,” Alvarado said.
Magallanes is also using methods that other candidates are using, such as banners, signs, cards, and giveaways, but she is also trying something different.
While still in planning stages, Magallanes said she is looking into sponsoring some local hot dog places, donuts, or raspados and “giving free food to the first 100 people.”
“At that time,” she said, “following COVID rules, I’ll be able to be there in an open space where I can speak to them and hand out a palm card in English/Spanish and provide giveaways in bags.”
Magallanes is planning on running ads and messages to local groups on social media such as Facebook and Instagram. She has also spoken to teachers and parents via Zoom calls.
“Now what I am doing a lot more is word of mouth … more dependent on lot of people to spread the word, the message, to their family on social media that I won’t be able to give out,” Alvarado said.
Ureña has managed campaigns for others for about 10 years. This election year will be his first time campaigning for himself. He is utilizing virtual methods to communicate his message. He does have two strategies he is utilizing to spread the word.
“First is a physical map (your neighborhood),” said Ureña. “I come from a mathematics background. I am using grassroot networking strategies. Second is family. For example, when you talk to five people, they can spread to their family and their neighbors.”
“Tienes que correr la voz y tambien saber como corren las aquas,” he said, which translates to “you need to get the word out and you need to know how the waters flow.”
Some of the ways Calexico Unified incumbent Mike Castillo is spreading his message is “reaching the older group through Facebook, the youth through Instagram, and focusing on those different applications, including using more video to put online. There is also discussion of an online forum.”
In years past, the El Centro Chamber of Commerce, Imperial County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business, the American Citizens Club in Brawley and the students’ association at Imperial Valley College have all done candidates’ forums. But it wasn’t immediately clear if those organizations will be doing anything differently this year.
COVID’s Affect on the County Elections
Although the Imperial County Elections Department did go through the March primary before the pandemic hit, a lot of things have been done differently since, chief election official Porter said.
She said with much of the County Administrative Center still closed to the public, as it has since late March, Porter said a lot of what her department has done has been done by appointment, online or over the phone.
And some of it has created greater efficiencies for her department, she said.
For example, administering the “oath” to take the candidacy and campaign seriously was done by appointment rather than whenever a candidate decided to show up to the office.
“We think it worked out for us a lot better,” she said.
Candidates picked up their filing packets at the door or had them mailed to their homes.
Porter said it will likely be the same way for candidates who need to file state election finance forms. They will either get their forms mailed out or pick them up at the door by appointment and return them the same ways.
As far as the effect on voters, so far, it’s going to be business as usual except with safeguards in place.
Porter said vote by mail ballots will start being sent out Oct. 5 and there will still be 55 precincts, but in a smaller number of polling places in new locations that will allow for social distancing.
Keeping it Simple
Maybe just going with the flow and adapting is the name of the game with COVID.
Mike Pacheco, who was appointed about a year and a half ago to the Holtville City Council, is seeking re-election in November.
“I have never had to campaign. (This is) my first time, and it falls under this COVID-19 situation. The strategy has changed,” he said.
“I decided to do more signs and use door hangers on Holtville residents,” Pacheco said. “I’m not big into Facebook and not going that route. (I) will do door hangers closer to when county (of Imperial) announces absentee voting, which is usually end of September or beginning of October.”
“The City Council use WebEx or Zoom for their meetings, which is most likely what will be used if there is a forum,” Pacheco noted.
Pacheco, being on the Holtville City Council prior to the pandemic, relayed that he has a benefit in that he has had an opportunity to meet and talk to people in person prior to COVID. “People have had a chance to meet and talk to me. We have already had the interaction with each other.”
Added Alvarado: “This (COVID) is something new for all of us, and we will adapt. We will all overcome … (we are) in it together and learning as we go.”
(UPDATE/CORRECTION Sept. 17: Calexico City Council candidate Raul Ureña was inadvertently confused with his father, Raul Ureña Sr., who recently filed to run for the Heffernan Memorial Healthcare District. The error was introduced during the editing process. We strive to be 100 percent accurate and regret when errors are made. Thank you. Editor Richard Montenegro Brown.)