Sanitizer and single-use pens: How rural Missouri counties are preparing for Tuesday’s elections

Polling places across Missouri will soon open for the first election since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the state. On Tuesday, voters will see new safety measures in place.

Missouri’s municipal elections — delayed from April 7 to June 2 due to COVID-19 concerns — are now just days away. In rural counties that have emerged as COVID-19 hotspots, clerks have been preparing for months.

Shields will separate poll workers and voters. Poll workers will have the option to wear gloves and masks or face shields. Hand sanitizer and other cleaning products will be available. And single-use pens will be provided to voters.

County clerks in Saline, Sullivan and Scott counties, which have high per capita rates of COVID-19 cases, prioritized securing personal protective equipment, or PPE, and reassuring poll workers. Officials also pointed out that municipal elections typically have low voter turnout. This means fewer poll workers are needed and crowds are not expected at polling sites.

These factors might reduce the chance of Missouri’s local elections becoming a disaster like the one that unfolded when Wisconsin held its April 7 presidential primary. In the weeks following the election in Wisconsin, more than 70 people who voted in person or worked polls tested positive for COVID-19.

County officials in Missouri are confident that their preparations will be enough to allow poll workers and voters to participate in the elections as safely as possible — even in counties with high rates of positive COVID-19 cases.

Still, not everyone is confident that Missouri has done enough to ensure voter safety. The Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, an independent election watchdog group, is concerned that the state didn’t do enough to allow absentee voting because of COVID-19 ahead of Tuesday’s election. This would’ve let voters avoid gathering in person at polling places.

Personal protective equipment

To decide what safety measures to put in place, Saline County Clerk Debbie Russell put herself in the voters’ and poll workers’ shoes.

“If I were a poll worker, and I was sitting with people coming in, what would I want to protect me?” Russell said.

Envisioning those things helped Russell figure out how she wanted to safely outfit polling places in her county, she said. She plans to keep people six feet apart. To make the process as contactless as possible, Russell said she plans to teach poll workers how to enable voters to scan their own voter IDs.

“That’s one of the things I think is going to be really essential in this,” Russell said.

Scott County Clerk Rita Milam said poll workers will be responsible for disinfecting iPads between uses.

“There will be all kinds of hand sanitizer and all of that available, and all other kinds of sanitizing stuff to clean with,” she said. Milam confirmed that she has secured more than enough PPE and cleaning supplies for the election.

Jackie Morris, the Sullivan County clerk, said she was bringing in additional staff to disinfect door handles and tables. Her polling locations will have markings to keep people six feet apart for social distancing purposes. She also said the secretary of state’s office was helpful in acquiring and distributing PPE to the counties.

Denise Lieberman, general counsel for the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, said it’s hard to assess how well each election official is adhering to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s polling place guidelines.

“The truth of the matter is, it’s going to vary from place to place,” Lieberman said. Polling places in smaller rural communities with fewer voters to process might not have to worry about distancing voter check-in tables, for example. In cities, however, “You’re going to have to really think about how you’re arranging everything,” she said.

Lieberman also said the coalition was disappointed the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, didn’t issue guidance to local election authorities on absentee voting before the June election; but the organization is pleased that the legislature acknowledged the need for mail-in voting due to the pandemic.

Lawmakers recently passed a bill that would give more people the option to vote from their own homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Poll workers

Many clerks personally handled outreach to their election workers.

“I kind of did a random call back in early April, and they were pretty reluctant,” Russell said of her election workers. Russell said the first thing she told her workers was that she didn’t want them to possibly compromise their health out of loyalty to her or to the electoral process.

Russell said she told them: “I morally and ethically have a hard time asking you to … come in and work the polls, but I still need to ask you first because you are the seasoned poll worker.”

When she and her team called the election workers again a few weeks later, Russell said the majority of them agreed to work the polls if she had proper PPE for them. She also spent a lot of time talking workers through the safety measures that would be implemented.

Milam said she personally called her poll workers to see if they were willing and available to work. Similarly, Morris wrote a letter to her poll workers explaining the safety measures.

Scott County is sending a lot of training material for election workers through the mail, Milam said. But she noted that many of the election workers are people who have frequently worked municipal elections.

Milam said poll workers will be called again in the days before the election to see if they have questions or concerns.

Milam estimated a little over half of her poll workers are over age 65, and those people are more at risk when it comes to COVID-19. For this reason, some said they didn’t feel comfortable working the polls, but Milam said that hasn’t been very common.

“Right now, you know, I have enough (workers),” Milam said. “Hopefully, they won’t start backing out closer to election day, but that’s okay … The election will go on one way or the other, I guarantee you.”

Municipal election turnout

The June elections are municipal elections, which typically have lower voter turnout. But this might make it easier to hold an election during a pandemic.

“These are going to be much lower turnout elections than August and November,” Lieberman said. “It might offer sort of an opportunity for election officials to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Milam said she’ll need around 60 to 80 poll workers for municipal elections in Scott County.

“Now, in August and November, we’re at least double that, if not more,” she said.

In Saline County, Russell said she has around 60 poll workers for normal municipal elections, but for this election she has about 50.

“Normally we have two sets of bipartisan teams in every polling place,” Russell said. “But because of this situation, it’s going to be a smaller election.”

A lot of people in her county voted absentee, so she is staffing her small precincts with just one bipartisan team and an extra person who will help enforce social distancing and sanitize surfaces.

Not every county has seen an increase in absentee voting, though. Morris said Sullivan County has seen fewer absentee ballot requests than usual.

“It would be nothing for us to have maybe 120 absentees up to this time,” she said. “I think I have maybe 41. So you know, I’ve seen even less turnout.”

Morris suspects this is because the COVID-19 outbreak has consumed so much of the public’s attention that school board and city council elections, which are sometimes uncontested, are no longer at the top of people’s minds. She also fears a recently discovered cluster of positive cases connected to a food processing plant in Sullivan County will prevent people from coming out to vote in person.

“I feel that fear is going to decrease the number of people coming to vote again,” Morris said. “So I do not look for a very big turnout in this election.”

This story was produced by the Missouri Information Corps, a project of the Missouri School of Journalism. We’re gathering stories of the COVID-19 pandemic around the state. Want to share your election-day experience with us? Email: moinformationcorps@gmail.com

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