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County clerk predicts busiest Election Day in county history

Although today is officially the day of the 2020 general election, more than 10,000 people in Campbell County already have cast a ballot.

To avoid long lines of voters at Cam-plex on Election Day, the Campbell County Elections Office has made it a point to encourage people to register before the election and reminding them that they can vote early.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Long lines form at the Campbell County Courthouse Friday afternoon as voters wait to fill out their ballots prior to today’s election.

For the last two weeks, things have been busy from open to close at the Elections Office with people voting early. In the last week alone, nearly 3,000 people voted at the office including:

  • Oct. 26: 467 early voters
  • Oct. 27: 498
  • Wednesday: 498
  • Thursday: 632
  • Friday: 727
mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Blane Kissack votes early at the Campbell County Courthouse Friday afternoon.

And as of the end of the day Friday, the Elections Office had mailed out 3,868 absentee ballots and received 3,458 of them back. This, combined with the 6,346 people who voted in the office, means that 9,804 Campbell County voters cast a ballot as of Friday.

And if last week is any indication, there should have been several hundred voters coming into the office Monday to cast their votes, pushing the total number of early voters past 10,000.

For comparison, the 2016 presidential election saw about 6,400 people vote early and absentee, which was a record at the time.

That election was record-setting in many ways. The presidential race helped draw 18,353 voters to cast ballots, the highest in Campbell County’s history.

Voter turnout was 124%, which means that more people voted than had been registered before Election Day, where they also can register. That percentage was again the highest in Campbell County. Statewide, it was 107%, a Wyoming record.

All of these local records could fall by the time the 2020 presidential election is complete. County Clerk Susan Saunders, whose office is in charge of the local election, predicts that today’s election will be the busiest in Campbell County history.

Just by analyzing the lines at the Elections Office, Saunders said she can’t definitively say whether it’s been busier than 2016. With the influx of voters, “it all gets to be a blur,” she added.

Saunders predicts Election Day will be busier than ever before because of people registering before they vote.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Voters register before filling out their ballots Friday at the Campbell County Courthouse.

In 2016, about 3,500 voters registered at their polling places on Election Day. Saunders won’t be surprised if that’s surpassed this year. That will lead to longer lines at the Wyoming Center, which in turn means results will come in later, because nothing can be done until the last voter in line by 7 p.m. has cast a vote.

For the last several months, Saunders has been hoping for good weather on Election Day.

“Four years ago, the weather was nice,” she said. “It wasn’t snowing and blowing. People weren’t angry that they were in line because it wasn’t cold.”

This year’s weather also should cooperate, which a high predicted near 70 and sunshine.

The local election has a mix of national and local flavor. Being a presidential race usually means a high voter turnout, but along with that, all four Gillette City Council races are contested, and “that has been drawing attention,” Saunders said.

There also are contested races that haven’t been getting as much attention, such as the school board, hospital board and cemetery district.

If past presidential elections are any indication, Republican candidates should have no problem winning big in Campbell County. In 2016, Trump received 15,778 votes, or about 86%, in Campbell County, while Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton had 1,324 votes, or 7%.

As of Oct. 1, there were 16,058 registered voters in Campbell County, fifth most in the state. The 13,960 registered Republicans were third most in the state, while the 991 registered Democrats — making up 6.2% of Campbell County’s registered voters — was only 11th most.

How has Campbell County voted in past presidential elections?

2016: 18,353 people voted for a 124% turnout. Trump received 86% of the vote, with 15,778 votes, while Hillary Clinton got 1,324 votes, or 7%.

2012: 17,563 people voted, for a 117% turnout. Mitt Romney received 85% of the vote, compared to Barack Obama’s 12%.

2008: John McCain received 79% of Campbell County’s votes, and Obama got 18%.

2004: There was a 117% turnout, with 15,302 people voting. George Bush received 12,415 votes, or 83%, while John Kerry brought in 17% of the vote.

2000: Bush got 82% of the vote, compared to Al Gore’s 16%. There was a 105.4% turnout this year.

1996: 12,086 people voted. Bob Dole received 54%, or 6,382 votes, while Bill Clinton got 29%, with 3,468 votes. This election had an 88% turnout.

1992: In an election with 87% turnout, George H.W. Bush got 47% of the vote in Campbell County, with 5,318 votes. Clinton got 24% of the votes with 2,709.

1988: 9,326 people voted in this election, good enough for a 77% turnout. George H.W. Bush got 6,702 votes for 74% of the vote. Michael Dukakis got 25% of the vote with 2,288.

AVA Community Art Center Program Director Will Lopez stands for a portrait in the center’s ceramic studio Friday afternoon. AVA will soon be ready to start workshops for people interested in learning about or improving their pottery skills.

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CCHS mock presidential election gives students practice for the real thing
At CCHS, votes won’t officially count, but will be counted all the same

All of their votes will be counted, but few will actually count.

That’s not a doomsday prediction related to a lack of faith in mail-in ballot procedures or other paranoid claims of voter fraud. It’s just that most of these particular voters fail a basic requirement: They aren’t yet 18 years old.

Campbell County High School’s core social studies classes are staging a mock election on America’s Election Day in a process that will look similar to citizens casting their votes at designated polling places around the county.

The students will go to a single computer lab in the school — their polling place — which will be outfitted with the necessary COVID-19 precautions in place, and they’ll wait their turn to vote. They’ll be expected to show a form of identification. They’ll sit down at a computer to choose their candidates in national and local elections, including for president, U.S. Congress, county commissioners, school board members and the local lodging tax issue.

Their votes will be tallied and compared to those cast in Campbell County, Wyoming and nationwide. The results will serve as a lesson for students who are expected to care about the importance of an event in which they’re not allowed to participate.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Campbell County High School government teacher Becky Buell gives some last-minute instructions to her students at the end of class Friday afternoon.

History is now

Political rhetoric has long proclaimed a given year’s election to be “the most important election.” That’s also the emphasis in 2020, from the candidates themselves, pundits, editorial boards and historians.

A social studies teacher sees those claims and assesses presidential elections through the lens of history, likely questioning, “What about 2016? Have we already forgotten that election? Or what about 2004, where the Iraq War was essentially on the ballot? Or 2000, which introduced the U.S. Supreme Court into the election process and set the stage for the country’s response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?”

And those elections are just recent history.

What about 1932’s presidential election in the face of The Great Depression? Or 1860’s that would place Abraham Lincoln in office to preside over the Civil War? Or what about 1796, when George Washington had refused a third term and the American experiment with a peaceful democratic transfer of power began?

No matter the conclusions drawn by historians on the question of America’s most important election, the reality for high school social studies teachers remains as it ever has: During election years, they’re tasked with teaching current events with an eye toward the future, as today’s news isn’t far removed from being tomorrow’s history.

“As a history teacher, what you’re commissioned to teach young kids is to just have them listen,” said Mitch Holst, a U.S. history teacher at CCHS. “To listen to both sides of the story. What our job is, I think, is to help kids decide, ‘Hey, I need to go vote. That’s my job.’”

The mock election is a teaching moment for that goal, said Chris Ingersoll, another U.S. history teacher at CCHS.

“It gives them a little bit of an idea of what the (voting) process looks like,” Ingersoll said of what students get out of the exercise. “Hopefully, it’s something that would encourage them to vote in the future.”

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Senior Remington Gusick completes an assignment in her government class at Campbell County High School Friday afternoon.

Scrutinizing the media

Legendary Washington Post publisher Phil Graham was fond of saying that journalism is the first rough draft of history. The social studies teachers at CCHS, whether or not they know of Graham’s famous quote, abide by his theory as they all stress the importance of media literacy in their classes. When they have students assess and judge these contemporaneous accounts of the 2020 election, the exercise sticks with the students.

Recently, Becky Buell’s U.S. government classes participated in a comparison of “60 Minutes” interviews with both candidates.

“This isn’t to change your mind about which candidate you’ll vote for,” Buell recounted telling her students. “This is about you looking at media bias, and do you see media bias here? You have President Trump claiming, the analogy I use with the kids, he gets served fast pitches; he gets the difficult questions. You have Trump also claiming that former Vice President Biden is getting underhand, or softball, questions. I want you to watch this and I want to talk about it, and what do you think after watching these two interviews by the same news organization.”

Dillon McCall, a student who won’t be eligible to vote in a presidential election until 2024, was part of that classroom exercise. He said that discussions of media bias were among the most prominent talking points in the class. He brought up the “60 Minutes” exercise without being prompted.

“You can tell the lady that they had interviewing the president didn’t like him and didn’t like letting him have a proper interview,” McCall said about Lesley Stahl. “I’m honestly disappointed in the reporter because she’s supposed to be a journalist and not a political opinion writer.”

Lessons in civility

A common theme from the teachers was the importance placed on keeping discussions, and more importantly disagreements within those discussions, civil.

Dusty DeBoer, a U.S. history teacher at CCHS, said teaching those skills in civility are rooted in basic practices, like only allowing one person to speak at a time. It sounds almost quaint, like the first day of school in kindergarten, but as he pointed out, “When you start talking politics, people are way more into waiting for you to get done so they can interject what they think as opposed to listening to what you’re saying and responding in a constructive way.”

In an extra-credit opportunity for students earlier in the year, the social studies department screened the first presidential debate at the school and invited students to watch. DeBoer said about 50 students showed up, and more than a few of them noticed that the candidates couldn’t seem to follow the basic civility encouraged in DeBoer’s class.

“I can’t tell you how many students said, ‘Neither one of them won it,’ because they constantly interrupted each other and they were talking over each other and there was way more bickering than there was substance,” DeBoer said.

But when conversations are allowed to take place, some interesting moments are revealed that confound preconceived notions and assumptions.

“I remember last year, we had an in-class debate on illegal immigration and Trump’s wall,” DeBoer said. “We had some great back and forth and things were really civil. One of my students, her family had crossed the border, and she got really emotional when she talked about what life is really like in Mexico. And even though they crossed the border illegally, they had to, to get away from drug cartels because they were afraid for their lives.”

DeBoer said he was shocked that she opened up with such a revelation.

“Most kids were like, ‘Oh yeah! Build the wall! Trump!’” he said.

He said the conversation was invaluable.

“When you see the humanity of the other side, I don’t know if it changed any kids’ minds, but it at least opened them up to the realities of the full scope of the debate,” he said.

Not ‘what’ but ‘how’

Seeing a young person consider all sides of an argument, to question assumptions and find justifications for beliefs (or reject them as wrongly held) is the point of teaching.

“That’s why we do what we do,” DeBoer said. “I think that right there, in a nutshell, is what we do as teachers, is we teach students how to think.”

Buell made similar points, and she made the same pleas for understanding that could likely be heard in the newsrooms of the national media outlets she has her students study so closely.

“I think I would love for the community to know that they’ve got some really hard-working people who are working on behalf of educating their children in a well-rounded way,” Buell said. “We are not promoting an agenda.

“We are trying to help the kids become politically active. We’re trying to teach them civil discourse. We are not promoting an agenda. We’re not here to tell them what to think or what to believe. We’re just here to help them to think, to learn how to be a responsible citizen, not to be a Democrat or a Republican.”

COVID-19 surges into new month after record-setting October
Campbell County saw more than 800 new virus cases, up to 1,092

Campbell County added more than 800 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 throughout October to amass 1,092 total as the steep climb in cases continues into a new month.

The county averaged about 26 new cases per day during October. That pace only sped up as the month progressed. From Oct. 15 through the end of the month, the county added 612 new cases at a clip of about 38 new cases a day.

The 662 active cases in the county is the fourth-highest total in the state behind Albany, Laramie and Natrona counties.

As of Nov. 1, there have been 1,092 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Campbell County, along with 98 probables and 505 recoveries.

“I think that after the significant spike that we saw in October, there’s some concern that we may continue to see that upward trend,” said Ivy McGowan, Campbell County spokeswoman.

It will take a couple of weeks to see if a spike in cases is tied to any of Halloween or fall festivities, McGowan said.

“It’s just really difficult to say,” she said. “If people were doing most of their trick-or-treating outside and maintaining social distancing … it’s possible we won’t see much of a spike at all.”

There was some concern at the time that Fourth of July celebrations could lead to an uptick in cases, but the outdoor summer holiday did not end up affecting the county’s case count, she said.

In the rest of Wyoming, cases have been rapidly climbing as well.

The Cowboy State now has seen more than 11,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Wyoming more than doubled its case count in October alone. After beginning the month with 5,046 confirmed cases, the state clocked in at 11,638 cases — a 6,592 case increase — to cap off what has been the worst month of the pandemic so far.

Additionally, there have been 2,085 probable cases and 87 COVID-19 related deaths in the state since the pandemic began in March.

With the holiday season, cold weather and flu season approaching, the United States is seeing one of the most severe waves of COVID-19 infections yet. Unlike the early spikes in the spring and summer that mostly missed the state, this one has landed squarely in Wyoming, including Campbell County.

There have been more then 9 million total cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. since the pandemic began.

Over the past seven days, Wyoming has the fifth highest rate of infection in the country, per 100,000 people, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. While the U.S. is averaging 23.8 cases per 100,000, Wyoming’s average is 61.6.

Nearby North Dakota and South Dakota have the two highest rates of infection in the country by the same metric, with 137.7 and 127.1 per 100,000 respectively.

Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota have formed a cluster or northern states with some of the highest rates of infection in the country, according to the CDC.

Laramie County overtook Albany as the Wyoming county with the most COVID-19 cases. There are 1,410 confirmed cases in Laramie alongside 450 probables. Albany has 1,404 confirmed cases and 158 probables, followed by Natrona 1,388 (300), Fremont 1,317 (188), Campbell County 1,092 (98) and Teton 781 (33).

Coming off of the worst month of the pandemic so far for Campbell County and Wyoming, it is unclear what to expect from the winter months to come. McGowan said that a continuation of the upward trend is a real possibility.

“It is entirely possible that we will continue to see the same trend and maybe even slightly more depending on how good of a job people do in trying to limit their exposure to people outside of their households in those social settings,” McGowan said.