In Iowa, lawn signs keep vanishing. They’ll be there in the front garden one night, red white and blue against the unnaturally lush suburban American green grass, advertising to drivers and dog walkers alike that the people inside want Joe Biden to be the next president of the United States. “Joe 2020.” “Unity over division, Biden-Harris 2020.” “Bye-Don.” And the next morning, they’re gone. One man got caught stealing a sign, and then got caught stealing the newspapers reporting what he’d done. (Trump signs have been stolen and vandalised too).
Iowa, where the presidential primaries began with the shambolic caucuses in February, has become one of the most expensive electoral battlegrounds in the nation. In 2016, the state went for Trump by a massive 10 points after voting for Obama by two in 2012; the 12-point swing was the largest of any state in the nation. Now, the swing state is living up to that label: FiveThirtyEight has Biden slightly ahead. But it’s not only the presidential race on the line: the incumbent Republican senator Joni Ernst is neck-and-neck with her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, who has raked in a staggering amount of money – $28.7m in the third quarter of this year alone – to try to flip one of Iowa’s two red Senate seats to blue.
This is my fourth presidential election in the US, but my first in Iowa. I grew up in Australia, and moved to this state two years ago after living in New York City for a decade, because my partner, an Iowan, ran for office here.
The vanishing lawn signs, of course, are not the only dirty trick we’ve seen this year: Republicans have done everything in their power to make voting harder for people who likely won’t vote for them, from closing ballot drop locations to reimposing felon disenfranchisement to knee-capping the postal service.
I voted early and in person, waiting for half an hour in a socially distanced line at the local library. That’s nothing compared with the hours-long wait other voters have endured, but still a tax in the form of time, and in the middle of a pandemic in which Iowa is faring absolutely terribly, a risk voters shouldn’t have to take to get their ballot counted.
By now it has become a cliche to compare America’s voting system – a state-by-state patchwork of time-consuming and easily-screwed up registration procedures, followed by deliberately limited in-person voting options – to Australia’s. Similarly, it has become a threadbare exercise in horror to compare how the US has responded to coronavirus with how Australia has. When I returned home to see my family in July, I was required to spend two weeks in a hotel room in Sydney and was regularly tested for coronavirus during my quarantine. Six weeks later, when I flew back to Iowa, there was nothing to stop me from driving from the airport to my local supermarket, mask-free, and breathing all over my fellow Iowans.
To date, more than 120,000 people in Iowa have contracted coronavirus, and 1,693 of them have died. The population of Iowa, where a Republican governor never issued a stay-at-home order and has pushed the state to a full re-opening even as case numbers continue to rise, is 3.1 million. Australia, with its population of 25 million, has seen 27,569 cases to date, 907 of them fatal.
Cliches or no, it is hard to avoid making these comparisons as election day hurtles towards us. Because they are not simply thought experiments, they’re questions about life and death, and about who and what government is for. What would this country look like if it invested in the infrastructure of a truly representative democracy, as Australia has? Would the officials elected under such a system have taken the threat of the pandemic seriously, rather than allowing partisanship to warp their understanding of not just science but of what sacrifices we owe to each other?
Just as it was hard to explain to Americans how stringent Australia’s policies for returnees were, it has been hard to explain to Australians what the mood is here as the election approaches. After four years under Trump’s Republican party – four years of obscene policies meant to harm the most vulnerable, four years of testing and in some cases breaking the institutional guard rails of American democracy – and eight months of coronavirus, the mood is sheer anxiety. The mood is utter exhaustion.
The mood is optimism quickly smothered by fear and dread. This time in 2016, the polls predicted a Trump loss, but voter suppression and Russian interference kept just enough people from voting in crucial states to swing the election Trump’s way.
The mood, for me and many of my fellow journalists, is disassociation and numbness, coping mechanisms we learned a long time ago are essential for doing the work of covering the horrors and incompetencies of this administration.
The mood is anticipation of relief, mingled with the knowledge that relief might not come, that it all might go wrong, and that the election, like our lawn signs, might once again be stolen from us.
• Chloe Angyal is a contributing editor at marieclaire.com and the author of the forthcoming book Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself. She is from Sydney and lives in the Iowa City area