WASHINGTON —  Shelli Yoder, Indiana State Senate candidate and former Monroe County Council member, is a charismatic campaigner who has the ability to both energize a crowd and connect at one-on-one interaction. Her style and personality are perfect for old-fashioned retail politics.

“But this pandemic has forced all of us to re-think what is and is not vital,” Yoder said in an e-mail exchange about her current Indiana Senate campaign. “Though we’ve cancelled all in-person activities, our campaign has continued to work hard to have meaningful interaction in Monroe County. We’ve shifted to phone banks, Zoom rallies, Facebook Live town halls with local leaders and letter writing.”

COVID-19 is changing how political campaigns and voting are being conducted, casting aside the traditional methods of voter contact while making way for newer techniques. The days of knocking on doors and delivering a message directly to voters or physically helping voters get to the polls are on hold in these times of social distancing. Instead, it has forced campaigns to rely almost totally on digital means of communication and organization, some more creative than others. Field directors are working from home conducting on-line outreach rather than organizing coffee meetings and rallies. One New York 1st District congressional candidate, Democrat Bridget Fleming, has been hosting regular coronavirus briefings on Facebook in the manner of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Some Democrats give credit to their digital operation for the stunning upset victory in the State Supreme Court (SCOWIS) race during last month’s Wisconsin presidential primary. Republicans had been so afraid of the usually high presidential primary turnout that they tried to separate it from the SCOWIS election. Democrats, for their part, had been counting on a hotly contested Wisconsin presidential primary to generate high Democratic turnout for their Supreme Court candidate. Instead, the pandemic triggered an all-out legal battle resulting in partisan court decisions that forced many voters to risk their health in order to vote. Nonetheless, Democrats, capitalizing on voter anger over the insensitive court rulings, were able to generate a large turnout.

The most conspicuous example of a campaign upended by the pandemic is that of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden who has been campaigning the past two-plus months from the basement of his Delaware home. Biden’s virtual campaign – harkening back to the days when presidential candidates like Benjamin Harrison and Warren G. Harding never strayed from their front porches – has received criticism from fellow Democrats though mostly prompted by the contrast with President Trump who appears on television daily, visibility that hasn’t necessarily helped him. But the greater concern among Democrats is that the Trump campaign is significantly ahead of Biden’s in terms of digital organization and strategy.

Campaigning techniques develop over time even as major events accelerate their evolution. Dwight Eisenhower used television effectively during his two presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956 although the spots themselves were rather primitive. But it wasn’t until John F. Kennedy’s campaign put JFK’s telegenic look into the living rooms of millions of voters in 1960 that campaigns were said to have entered the television era. In 2020 candidates are learning that technology allows them to be in multiple living rooms for town hall meetings rather than having to worry about low attendance and sparse media coverage of such events. Campaigns are likely to continue using virtual town halls and fundraisers even after the coronavirus is under control because they have proven to be effective.

The greatest challenge for Democrats is building a voter turnout operation that generates votes from more casual voters, especially in urban areas.  Turnout in the critical cities of Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia was down in 2016 costing Hillary Clinton an Electoral College victory, in the minds of many observers. The pandemic will make the effort more challenging than ever as group activities such as “souls to the polls” and buses to early voting sites will not be available.

The pandemic is also changing the way we vote. Some states that usually reserve absentee voting for the elderly, disabled or for special circumstances have been forced to make it available to everyone for primaries. Yet, President Trump’s attacks on vote-by-mail have caused many Republican lawmakers, executives, and party leaders to back off of their previous endorsements of mail voting for the general election.

Indiana, as one of 16 states that still requires an excuse to vote absentee (except for the June 2 primary), is in the bottom third of states whose voters utilize mail voting. The state’s election board has allowed concern about the coronavirus to be a valid excuse to request an absentee ballot for the June 2 primary.  However, Indiana, like most states that require an excuse, has yet to determine whether expanded vote-by-mail will be permitted for the general election.  

Four states – Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Hawaii – conduct all of their elections through mail-in votes. Four more states – Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and Alaska – have joined them in conducting their presidential primaries exclusively through vote-by-mail. In New Jersey, all registered Democratic and Republican voters are being sent a postage-paid vote-by-mail ballot for the June 2 primary. All unaffiliated and inactive voters are receiving a vote-by-mail application. Other states that conducted vote-by-mail primaries, like Nebraska and Ohio, allowed people with disabilities or without a permanent home address to vote in person.

Election experts have urged Congress to mandate that every state make it easier to vote by mail and provide funding for it, and have asked state governments to take immediate action to expand access to mail voting if Congress won’t. The ideal approach would be to eliminate the requirement that voters have an excuse for not voting in person, especially during a pandemic. The six states that are likely to decide the Electoral College winner – Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – all allow voters to obtain and cast a ballot by mail without an excuse.

Expanding vote-by-mail for November’s general election will likely boost its popularity as it is the fairest, safest and easiest way to cast a ballot. In addition, if Democrats win control of the White House and the Senate – admittedly a big “if” – a required vote-by-mail option will almost certainly pass the Congress in 2021 just as Congress passed the “motor voter” bill in 1993 after Bill Clinton’s election. That will make mail voting the most lasting legacy of the coronavirus pandemic on U.S. politics. But, on-line voting while continuing to be discussed will not likely be adopted anywhere so long as serious security issues remain.

In the end, campaign fundamentals will remain the same. The four pillars of a campaign – message, money, organization, and a quality candidate – will remain the most important factors determining the outcome of an election.  And, when the coronavirus is finally conquered, person-to-person contact will once again be an essential part of every campaign. 

Sautter is a Democratic media consultant based in Washington, D.C.