While 2020 may be historically remembered as the "Year of COVID-19," it also should be as the year America regained its passion for the electoral process.
After decades of lamenting low voter turnout numbers after primary and general elections, Tuesday's presidential election has all the makings to be record-setting on many levels.
Emotions are running high, and at times raw, with a growing political divide in the United States. While some argue that schism has grown to an alarming, and even dangerous, point, others are optimistic that those emotions are prompting millions of traditional non-voters to cast ballots this time around.
Today, the News Record examines a cross-section of local voters from a range of views, including a firm Republican, a Democrat, a blue-collar worker, first-time voter, local pastor and a third-party supporter.
While Gillette politically is a firm red town, there is still enough political diversity to spark lively debate.
First-time voter stresses the importance of civic engagement
Kaitlynn McKinsey made it in just under the wire. She turned 18 years old just two weeks before the 2020 election, and as a result, she’ll cast her very first ballot this year.
Although she’s paid attention to politics since she was 16, the realization that she’d actually be voting in this year’s election dawned on her just a week or so before her birthday. The fact that the news she’d ingested for years now was something that she would actually use to make her voice heard was “kind of a scary thing,” she said.
McKinsey is a senior at Thunder Basin High School, and she participates heavily in journalism and yearbook clubs. She is squarely a member of Generation Z, and therefore a lot of her life exists online. She’s seen the discourse about this year’s election online, and she’s no fan of it.
Reality has proven kinder, she said.
“I think that even people who don’t agree with my personal beliefs in Wyoming, or people who do, I think that in Wyoming specifically people are more accepting maybe than when you look online and see the situation in other states,” McKinsey said. “I think we can have somewhat civil discussions here because I do know people that have different opinions than me and we can still have civil discussions.”
Perhaps the truest mark of her relative newness to the electoral process is her open-mindedness, a trait that seems lacking among older voters in much of the online discourse about this year’s candidates and issues.
“I’ve always thought it was important to know about politics and to know about what’s going on, and to form your own opinions on what politics are,” she said. “My family has helped me a lot in that. A lot of times there would be things that I thought and that my family would disagree with. All they would tell me was to educate myself, and when I did, I realized I agreed with my family a little more than I — or a lot more than I originally thought I would. My family has always been one of those pushing factors for me to educate myself.”
McKinsey talked about voting like other teenagers might talk about getting a driver’s license; it’s a rite of passage.
“I know a lot of people decide not to vote, but in our house, voting has always been a very important thing,” she said. “If you don’t play a part in your government or in who is your president, then you don’t really have a right to complain about it.”
— Cary Littlejohn
Trump supporter says if Biden wins, 'it'll be a very sad day'
In 2016, Shelby Bachtold voted for Donald Trump for president because a vote for him was a vote for not just her family, but Campbell County and Wyoming.
“When he started running, everything that he was saying, it was 100% to benefit my family and what he could do for our state,” she said.
Four years later, her attitude has not changed. Her husband works a job that depends on the oil industry. Thousands in Campbell County depend on healthy fossil fuel industries. Joe Biden has not been shy about his intentions to push for renewable energy over coal and oil.
Bachtold is bothered by Biden’s statement that he doesn’t see “red states or blue states. What I see is American.”
“Well, if you saw Americans, you’d see a side of the country that would do nothing but suffer” if Biden were elected, she said.
She feels Trump’s chances are “pretty good,” but they would be much better if it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s complicated his campaign and has given Democrats yet another thing to criticize the president for.
“What irritates me the most is they hold him accountable for all these deaths,” she said. “Really, he did what he thought was best. It’s not his fault, it’s a virus.”
It bothers her that people think Biden can “make it all better” when Trump has “the right frame of mind” to deal with the pandemic.
“He’s trying to keep our country open so we can survive,” she said. “We depend on that paycheck, we have to work. We have to open. I don’t think people understand it is extremely crucial that we open up our country.”
Since he's been in office, Trump has faced nonstop opposition from Democrats and the media, who are “extremely blind to the good that he’s done," Bachtold said.
She wishes people who support Biden would be able to explain why they’re voting for him without mentioning that they hate Trump.
She does not think Biden will automatically make things better if elected and that he doesn’t think for himself.
“Joe says things that he’s told,” she said. “He doesn’t seem like he knows exactly what he’s talking about.”
She also can’t stand vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris.
“I think she’s a liar, and I think she’s very condescending and manipulative,” Bachtold said. “I don’t think she’s for the women of our country, and I don’t think she’s for the American.”
If Trump is elected, Bachtold expects things to go similarly to his first four years, adding that it would be “100 times better than if Joe got elected.”
“I think it’s going to look a lot like the first (term). Never-ending stories from the left trying to bring him down,” she said. “I would think that he’ll continue to do the things he’s wanting to do.”
However, if Biden wins, “I think you’d have a lot of scared people and concerned families,” she said.
“I think it’ll be a very sad day.”
— Jonathan Gallardo
Local Democrat 'not a fan,' but won't bash Trump
Lucas Fralick isn’t as critical of Donald Trump as many of his Democratic friends.
Fralick, a local Democrat and a national committeeman for the Wyoming Democratic Party, said some “fellow Democrats call me naive” for his stance on Trump.
“I’m not a fan, but it’s not that I don’t hate the man. He’s still the president,” Fralick said, adding that not all of Trump’s policies have been bad. But he’s not a fan of the president’s rhetoric.
“He’s done decent things. The problem is, his attitude for office is not what I consider presidential,” he said. “I don’t see him as a Republican. Most of my friends are all Republicans, and that’s not how they act.”
Trump has received a lot of criticism from Democrats on how he’s handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Fralick isn’t willing to pin all of the 220,000-plus U.S. COVID-related deaths on the president.
“It’d be easy for me to say he did a horrible job,” Fralick said. “But I don’t think it’s his fault it happened.”
The main thing Fralick wishes Trump would have done differently is not politicize the pandemic, particularly when it came to wearing face coverings.
“People would have politicized it anyway, but the president made it such a big deal,” he said.
He understands why Trump has been hugely popular in coal country. Fralick said he owes the coal industry “a very large debt,” because he’s lived in Gillette nearly his entire life.
“But I think, the thing with that is, we’ve had almost four years of the Trump administration and coal hasn’t really improved, fossil fuels have not become a bigger, better thing,” he said. “I’m not sure what Biden will end up doing besides hasten the decline.”
Fralick said Biden was his first choice for the Democratic nomination. He likes Biden’s moderate views and thinks the former vice president is the “most practical” choice for winning a general election.
“I will admit he is very old, as is Donald Trump,” Fralick said. “I feel like we could have done better with younger candidates.”
Fralick only watched the first presidential debate, which he thought was “horrible” for both sides.
“Biden didn’t do a good job either. That was horrific,” he said.
While some have called Trump the worst president in the nation’s history, Fralick said one can’t can’t judge a president’s legacy while he’s still in office.
“I may not like him, but we can’t deny he has most definitely been one of the most impactful (presidents),” Fralick said.
With all of the federal judges and Supreme Court justices that he’s appointed during his first term, Trump’s decisions will affect the legal landscape of the country for decades to come, he said.
Fralick also doesn’t see the seemingly ever-growing partisan divide getting any better. He believes it started with the rise of the Tea Party in the early 2010s and has since become worse.
“I don’t think there’s any candidate that has shown up that can heal that divide,” he said, and this presidential election is no different.
Going into Tuesday, Fralick said he thinks Biden will win, but that it will be much closer than a lot of his Democratic friends think. He won’t be completely shocked if Trump comes out on top, either.
“He’s surprised us before, he could surprise us again,” Fralick said.
— Jonathan Gallardo
Pastor wants nation to get back to core values
First United Methodist Church Pastor Samara Jenkins has already voted.
She recently did her civic duty the same day she picked up her Wyoming driver’s license.
Jenkins moved to Gillette from Las Vegas, Nevada, this summer to become the pastor of First United Methodist. While she admits she does not personally know many local candidates or all of the issues they support, she has been doing research to get herself caught up.
But one thing she does know is that it is important for people to vote.
“We have to be the change we want to see, so I’m looking forward to the election,” Jenkins said. “We can’t talk about what’s wrong if we don’t attempt to make a change.”
A couple of important issues to her are human diversity and the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, she said she is concerned about the slow progress being made in the latest round of stimulus talks in Congress.
It is more than about the government helping people and trying to stimulate the economy, she said.
“(It’s) how do we get back our core values as people?” she asked. "It’s really getting back to, how do we continue to function as people in our communities and also, how do we make (a) contribution with the rest of the world?”
Jenkins did not state who she thinks will win any of the races, but she does have a prediction.
“I think we’re going to see historic levels of people coming out to vote,” she said. “I think this is going to be a voter drive and push for something we have not seen in years.”
Jenkins is making a push, not just for people to vote, but to spread positivity in the community.
She recently issued a challenge to her congregation by suggesting that members buy a pack of Post-It notes, write something positive on each one, then randomly leave the messages places “so people can be encouraged with kindness,” Jenkins said.
Spreading positive messages is an important thing to do, especially during an election season that is filled with intense and bitter local, state and national politics.
“Political affiliation doesn't matter to me, it's the humanness that matters to me," Jenkins said, adding that while some people will be excited with the results and others will not be as enthusiastic, what ultimately matters is the day after Election Day, then the next day after that.
"Nov. 3 is going to come and be over with, but we still have to exist in this place together," she said.
— Gregory Hasman
Third-party voter feels like the 'politically homeless'
In an election year marred by uncertainty, Tyson Olsen finds truth in an old parable and an elephant and a group of blind men.
The blind men had never encountered an elephant before. When they approached it, none could see the full scale of the animal, but each touched a different part and formed an opinion of what it must be like. By only feeling a part of the elephant, each man imagined and described a different animal.
Of course, they were all misguided, but none of them knew that.
Olsen said politics today, and its reliance on a two-party system, is not so different.
“I think people, they’re finding one thing that is actually true — that one particular ideology — and they latch on to that one thing that’s true,” he said. “And since that’s true, it must mean that the rest of the ideology is correct. When ultimately, I think it’s bits and pieces of each ideology.”
But the piecemeal ideologies of Democrats and Republicans have not swayed Olsen, 24, toward either of this election’s frontrunners: Repblican President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
There are underlying values attached to liberal and conservative viewpoints that Olsen said leave him cold to both of the major political parties.
“Personally, I’m rather conflicted between liberal and conservative,” Olsen said. “I see the values of both. I am Libertarian.”
For that reason, Olsen said he will vote for third-party Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen for president.
“I’m a milquetoast fence-sitter, really,” Olsen said. “I’m mostly just confused. I’m politically homeless.”
Olsen attends Gillette College, where he is studying mechanical engineering. Despite lacking a mainstream political party to pay his allegiance to, he stands by his Libertarian stance with confidence.
He is opposed to the country engaging in “useless wars” internationally while also continuing the war on drugs domestically. In regard to America’s penal system, he believes in the jurisprudent notion of corpus delicti, or, the idea that if something is not hurting anyone, it should probably be legal.
“If a crime produces no injured body I would argue that it shouldn’t be a crime,” he said.
All of which are ideas that Jorgensen mirrors as a presidential candidate, he said.
Although apathy may be a factor keeping some voters who opt out of making a clichéd choice between “the lesser of two evils," that is not the case for Olsen.
Calling Jorgensen a long-shot is too generous. She is a virtual lock to lose the election.
However, Olsen does not consider his vote futile.
On the heels of an election cycle where the country has grown increasingly polarized, Olsen views the validation of a third political party as a potential solution to the current two-party system that effectively guarantees either a Republican or Democratic candidate.
“I think that it is by design intended to create gridlock and keep the same people in positions of power,” Olsen said.
The current two-party system is widely supported, flaws and all, evidenced by the millions of Americans and overwhelming majority who will vote either Democrat or Republican this year. But those parties do not fully encapsulate the values their supporters associate with them, he said.
Olsen did not vote in the last presidential election. While the United States was reeling from the unexpected 2016 election results, Olsen was doing mission work in Italy, thousands of miles away from the county he is casting his ballot from in 2020.
If he did vote in the last election, he said he probably would have voted for Trump because of his then-status as a political newcomer. An outside perspective is something that appeals to him about Jorgensen.
“I agree with more of what she says, she hasn’t actually been a politician yet so there’s no historical precedent of things that she’s done,” he said.
This time around, both Biden and Trump have an established body of political work. Olsen said those track records prove the differences between the values they campaign on and the policy they actually affect.
“Both of the other candidates have things that you can look at and say, ‘This is what they’ve done,’” he said. “So, it will be a good predictor of what they will do in the future. And most of what they’ve done, I disagree with. Both of them.”
As a third-party voter, Olsen faces a conundrum. To his Biden-voting brother, a vote for Jorgensen is a vote for Trump. But for his pro-Trump father-in-law, a vote for Jorgensen is a vote for Biden.
Of course, both can't be true.
“I didn’t know I have three votes,” he said.
So, with or without a solution to that paradox, Olsen already has his mind made up. Come election day, he is voting for neither. Instead, he is supporting the one candidate who speaks to his values as they stand in 2020.
With no chance of winning, and with no hesitation, Olsen is voting for Jorgensen.
— Jake Goodrick
Choice is simple for oil field worker
In the eyes of someone who has dedicated much of his life to working in oil and natural gas, the upcoming election is pretty cut and dry, said James Pyke, who works as a service rig operator.
“If Biden wins, we are not going to be working,” Pyke said, noting Biden’s promise to stop new fracking on public lands if elected president. “He’s stated it multiple times and (Democratic Vice President candidate Kamala) Harris said she is against fracking, and without fracking, I can’t do what I do.”
Simply put, the election is coming at the worst possible time for someone like Pyke.
The first blow was a historic crash in the oil market, shuttering rig sites throughout the state at an alarming rate at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic early in the year. At one point, there were no rigs operating in Wyoming at all and many workers went without jobs for months. Pyke was without work from July 14 through Sept. 26.
“It almost rocked our company and took our company out,” Pyke said of the oil crash and its effects. “We were fighting to get back to work.”
His job is to produce oil. It is something he has had his hand in for the better part of 22 years, along with working in natural gas at sites around the country. He settled on making a life in Gillette six years ago.
After it is drilled, the oil goes to a refinery and then to vehicles. Without oil, he’s also scared of a historic spike in gasoline prices that will become a new normal for Americans.
“If he doesn’t win, we’re going to be paying $8 for a gallon of gas,” Pyke said about President Donald Trump. “I’m 100% worried about it. On the day of voting, I’ll be there.”
Pyke said it isn’t even that he is 100% in favor of Trump, as he believes the current president has a “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” way of operating. But he also believes Trump has kept America in a good place during hard times.
If viable, he said voting third party would be his answer, but he believes that doing so would be stealing a vote from a major party.
The upcoming election has been weighing on the minds of he and his fellow oil field workers as they travel to and from jobs together in the same vehicle.
“We talk about it every day,” he said. “We’re all wondering what we’re going to do if this happens or that happens. Pretty much everyone I work with is on my side of the fence on this.”
He is at a loss of what to do, as his future is practically out of his control. All he can do is hope, and vote. If, in fact, Joe Biden becomes the 46th president, Pyke said he will have to roll with the punches and adapt.
“If he is elected, I’m gonna have to find a different line of work,” he said. “I don’t wanna give it up, but it may be something that has to happen.”
He doesn’t believe oil production will halt immediately, but will see a slow reduction over time.
“I’m gonna have to learn how to build some windmills or something,” he said.
— Mike Moore
For Jason and Stephanie Robinson, the COVID-19 pandemic hit home earlier this month.
Jason, 48, felt a “light cold” start to develop. When he heard that someone he knew, and had recently been around, tested positive for COVID-19 and was in quarantine, he decided to get tested.
When the test came back positive, he and his household all quarantined. It wasn’t until a few days later that Stephanie’s 74-year-old father, who lives with them, started showing symptoms.
They said his symptoms began mild and progressed, starting with a headache and body aches and developing into a cough. When the symptoms worsened, they took him to Campbell County Memorial Hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19.
“The first couple of days, he thought he was going to die,” said Stephanie, 46.
By the fourth day in the hospital, her father was on the mend and by day five, he was released.
Throughout their quarantine, Stephanie said the rest of the household also got sick, but only Jason and her father were tested.
“I didn’t get it very bad, but within a week my father-in-law had to go to the ICU with all of the symptoms that you commonly think of when it’s discussed,” Jason said. “It makes you think about how you can have it and not be that bad or you can have it and the worst can happen.”
For Campbell County and Wyoming as a whole, October has been the worst month of the pandemic in terms of case count, deaths and, like the Robinson family experienced, hospitalizations.
Through Oct. 29, Campbell County has had 958 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic emergency began in March.
In one week alone, from Oct. 22 to Thursday, the county added 317 confirmed cases of COVID-19 for an average of just over 45 new confirmed cases per day.
In the same amount of time, Wyoming added 2,052 new confirmed cases for an average of about 293 new confirmed cases each day. As of Thursday, there have been 10,589 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
Hospitalizations, positivity rate and deaths have all soared in the county and state, dispelling the notion that the increased numbers are based solely on increased testing.
In Campbell County, the rolling two-week average percentage of positive cases is 23.33% as of Thursday, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. For comparison, Wyoming’s two-week positivity percentage is 9.79%, a relatively high mark that is still dwarfed by Campbell County’s rate.
There have been 87 COVID-19-related deaths recorded in Wyoming since the pandemic began.
According to the Wyoming Department of Health, there were 109 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 throughout the state as of Thursday. That is the most coronavirus-related hospitalizations that the state has had at any one time. Since crossing the threshold of 100 hospitalized patients Sunday, the state has remained steadily above that count.
Campbell County Memorial Hospital had seven COVID-19 patients Thursday, one of whom was in the ICU, said Dane Joslyn, Campbell County Health spokeswoman.
Jason remembered back to the beginning of the pandemic, when people skeptical of the pandemic would ask “but, do you know anyone who got it?”
At the time, the answer was “no.” Since then, after knowing of about 10 friends and family who have gotten COVID-19, he and Stephanie can answer that with a resounding “yes.”
“There are friends and relative in California, Montana who have gotten it,” Jason said. “Some have gotten lucky and had minor symptoms, some that had some pretty severe symptoms and some that actually died from it.”
The high uptick in COVID-19 cases this month, including many hospitalizations, an increase in deaths and several local elected Campbell County officials testing positive, serves as a high-water mark for the pandemic in the county. So far.
“I’ve seen some change in attitudes and thoughts from some people, just being more cautious. More people wearing masks, sanitizing, stuff like that,” Jason said. “It slowly is kind of catching up to this area, where other areas it hit a lot faster, harder.
“I can’t call it a political thing. You hear some people saying, ‘Oh, it’s just political and it will be gone by Election Day.’ Everybody has all these crazy, weird thoughts. I just know that people get sick and there are different levels of it. If you don’t want to get it, you try to do what you can and take the precautions.”