The 2020 election is like no other. The coronavirus has altered the very way elections operate. The pandemic, the accompanying economic crisis, and a nationwide reckoning over systemic racism have helped create the most volatile and unpredictable political environment the United States has seen in decades.

We want to understand, and serve, all the voters of Pennsylvania. That is why we are unveiling a new project: The Inquirer’s Election 2020 Roundtable.

Pennsylvania is a critical swing state in the presidential election again, after being decided by less than 1% of the total votes cast in 2016. Pennsylvania is also a sprawling, politically complex state. It encompasses so much of America in one place, reflecting the varied — and often divided — facets of the country’s culture, workplaces, lived experiences, needs, and political views. From big cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to small ones like Wilkes-Barre and Johnstown. From suburban cul-de-sacs to rural areas across the state. From the Center City skyline to the manufacturing row in Erie. And from the urban landscape of West Philly to the country roads in Westmoreland County.

The Roundtable brings together 24 voters from all over Pennsylvania for a series of open, virtual conversations about what matters most to them. We’ll talk about the issues. We’ll talk about the candidates. We’ll ask them what they want to talk about. We’ll endeavor to answer their questions — and share those answers with you. Meet the Roundtable members here.

Our journalists will regularly interact with Roundtable members. Their voices will help inform our coverage. They will connect us with their communities. We’ll share their insights and perspective with you, in regular updates on our Zoom convenings.

This is even more important now, when the pandemic has made it more difficult for us to meet voters where they work, where they play, where they shop, and where they live.

How we built the Election 2020 Roundtable

Building a representative group of Pennsylvania voters isn’t easy. We got as close as we could. Here’s what we did.

First, we invited every person we could to apply to be a Roundtable member. We created an application, and invested the resources to promote it in every corner of the state, on Inquirer.com and across our social media channels. In the end, more than 500 people applied. We are grateful to every single one of them. They became the self-selecting pool from which we could draw.

Then we tried to build the best Roundtable we could. Deputy Editor for Audience Development Ray Boyd and Senior Politics Editor Dan Hirschhorn got to work looking at applications. Ray and Dan looked for applicants who voiced a special desire to have civil, substantive conversations with people who are different from them. They interviewed finalists. And they always kept in mind the state’s geographic, political, and racial diversity.

In the end, we have 24 people.

They are Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They are from Scranton and Allentown, Williamsport and Easton, Bloomsburg and Gettysburg, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. They are Black, white, Asian, and Latino. Some have consistently voted for Democrats or Republicans in recent presidential elections. Others have voted for both. Some supported Barack Obama before casting a ballot for Donald Trump. Some backed Mitt Romney before pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton.

Some plan to vote for Trump. Some plan to vote for Joe Biden. Some are undecided.

Our group is not a perfect picture of the Pennsylvania electorate. Philadelphia voters are overrepresented in the Roundtable, as are those in northeast and northwest Pennsylvania. Voters in southwest and central Pennsylvania are underrepresented. Our partisan makeup is close: 50% registered Democrats (compared with about 47% in the state currently) and 33% registered Republicans (compared with about 38%). Same with gender: 54% female (compared with 52%) and 46% male (compared with 48%). Demographically, Pennsylvania is one of the oldest states in the country, but Roundtable members are younger on average. Black voters make up about 21% of the Roundtable, compared with about 10% statewide.

Voters without a college degree, an important part of the president’s support, are significantly underrepresented on our Roundtable, for only one reason: Very few applied. We will continue to seek out their voices as we do all others, and as we did during a recent trip to Carbondale, in far northeast Pennsylvania.

Many of our Roundtable members are what you might call “regular” voters who rarely if ever get involved in politics. Some have volunteered for or contributed to campaigns over the years. Only a few are more active, like a longtime local and state Republican Party committeeman in Lancaster County, or a social justice advocate who ran for City Council in Philadelphia.

For a full breakdown of how our Roundtable compares with the Pennsylvania electorate, see the chart accompanying this article.

All 24 Roundtable members have something in common: a desire for space to have respectful conversations about politics and policy with people who have different beliefs.

We hope you’ll join us keeping that conversation respectful. In an effort to make sure this is a safe space, we will be closely monitoring comments within this project.

We invite you to follow along for updates on the Roundtable. You can also stay in the know with all our Election 2020 coverage and our free Election 2020 newsletter. And we want to hear from you: Email us at election@inquirer.com.