‘There’s No Handbook for This’: Tuesday’s Election in Missouri to Test Voter Safety in Pandemic

June 2, 2020by Crystal Thomas and Allison Kite, The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Poll workers wait for voters at a polling location on April 7, 2020 in Madison, Wis. Concerns about voter safety led Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to move the state's April 7 local elections to June 2. Most votes will be cast in-person, as Missouri does not have "no-excuse" absentee voting. (Andy Manis/Getty Images/TNS)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The day before he buried his wife, Orville Amos limped into the Kansas City Election Board’s office to vote absentee.

For 25 years, the 75-year-old Navy veteran was first in line at his precinct’s polling place to cast his ballot in person. That would earn him a sticker he could show off in the election authority offices, where his wife had worked for 23 years.

The excitement Amos once felt about voting is gone now, eclipsed by grief over the death of his wife from lung cancer on March 25. And fear of the novel coronavirus.

“You know we are in that age group where we are the target of this virus,” Amos said, clad in a white mask. “It’s intimidating to come out in public even to go to the grocery store.”

Concerns about voter safety led Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to move the April 7 local elections to June 2. On ballots across the state will be city council races, school board contests and local sales tax levies for improvement projects.

Most votes will be cast in-person, as Missouri does not have “no-excuse” absentee voting. Nor does it provide for early voting outside its absentee process. There are six valid excuses to vote absentee, but fear of catching a potentially fatal disease for which there is no vaccine or treatment is not an official one.

Election authorities have had to struggle to retrofit voting to the pandemic age. Where 115 polling places were once available in Kansas City, there are now 28. Many traditional sites — mostly churches and senior centers — have dropped out. A corps of about 1,200 volunteer election judges who initially signed up, many of them in the at-risk age range of 65-plus, is down to 400.

Even with fewer polling places and poll workers, election authorities believe they have cleared most of the obstacles for Tuesday, when turnout is expected to be no more than 6% to 10% of registered voters.

It’s what happens next that keeps them awake at night.

The number of polling sites and volunteers will not be enough for the August primary, let alone the November general election.

Sixty percent of Kansas City’s eligible voters participated in the 2016 presidential contest. And there are the uncertainties: the virus and what form it may take in the fall, how it will affect workers and voters, whether expanded options through mail-in ballots will be offered.

“Obviously, there’s no handbook for this,” Lauri Ealom, the Kansas City Election Board co-director, said. “June serves as a dry run for August and November.”

Election authorities cannot commandeer buildings for polling places unless they are funded through tax dollars. It means that when a venue cancels, there is a scuffle to find an alternative.

“(Polling places) are afraid of being sued, of being legally liable, if someone happens to get sick while they vote,” said Shawn Kieffer, Kansas City Election Authority co-director.

While senior living centers have vulnerable residents, churches may have dropped out because they have remained closed throughout the pandemic.

Even in the week leading up to the election, one polling site opted out. On Tuesday, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Christian Church in south Kansas City called to cancel, even though post cards had been mailed to Ward 22 voters designating it as their polling place.

Election authorities were able to replace it with Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene, a four-minute drive from the original site. The election board’s website, kceb.org, advertised the difference.

Still, the damage was done. Confusion reigned and the election authority has fielded calls from concerned voters.

Kansas City and Jackson County have had to turn to atypical sources big enough to enforce six feet of social distancing between voters. Like schools.

Educators are usually leery of the security issues posed by outside traffic, but with all of Missouri’s schools shut because of the pandemic, that’s no longer a concern.

At Ruskin High School Wednesday, Kansas City election workers set up barriers of clear vinyl sheets and white PVC pipe underneath the basketball hoops in a multipurpose room. It was the fifth polling place they had set up that day.

Wearing masks, they placed yellow tape every 6 feet to mark where voters would stand. A poll worker with a tablet will walk the line to make sure each voter is at the correct location before they have to check-in.

This year, the pencils won’t be reused and stylus pens will be sanitized before reuse.

Each ward in Kansas City will have a centrally located polling place, according to Ealom. One ward will have two sites because the other is not accessible for the disabled.

Unlike previous elections, the election authority will not send teams to hospitals and nursing homes to help patients and residents cast last-minute ballots because the risk is high. Ealom knows that has made some prospective voters unhappy.

“We would never send people out to do something that Shawn and I would not do ourselves,” Ealom said.

Both city and county election authorities are offering curbside balloting and won’t question why the voter prefers not to come inside a polling place, officials said.

They have paid thousands to advertise the new polling places through local and social media. Last week, they released a video advertising the renewed safety precautions. Mayor Quinton Lucas shared his own video as well.

“We are advertising in so many places even outside of your traditional media,” Ealom said. “We’ve tried even Hispanic papers. We want to get the word out.”

Part of the costs were covered by a grant of $150,000 from the federal government. It was part of the $4.5 million distributed across the state by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.

Ealom cautioned voters not to be discouraged if they see a line out the door. In most cases, voters in Kansas City are weighing in on one issue and the length of the line will be exacerbated by social distancing.

“These polling places are going to be the cleanest they have ever been,” Ealom said, adding the workers will wear shields and gloves.

One thing beyond official control, however, is the behavior of the voters themselves. Ealom said she can’t require voters to wear masks.

“I would strongly encourage the voters to also think of the poll workers and those that are putting their life on the front line to also wear a mask because then you protect the other person,” Ealom said.

Ashcroft, the state’s chief elections officer, said he was impressed but not surprised at the preparations he has seen so far. He has visited each county with face masks, hand sanitizer, posters and striping tape.

“Missouri voters should be proud of the way their election officials have responded, and how they are implementing safeguards to keep voters and poll workers safe when they vote on June 2,” Ashcroft said in a statement. “Because of their hard work, it will be safe to vote.”

The Kansas City Election Authority had a head start in preparations.

It was late January when Ealom, a self-described “survivalist,” went deep into the rabbit hole of articles about the novel coronavirus and had conversations with friends who were epidemiologists. By then, China had locked down the city of Wuhan, where the virus originated, and the first case had made its way to Washington state.

Ealom brought her fears and ideas to co-director Kieffer. She said she foresaw polling places dropping out and envisioned pitching tents with air-conditioning or heating to replace them.

Kieffer said at first he thought Ealom was crazy.

“I’d always say, ‘That’s fine, you don’t have to give me permission to save your life,’” Ealom said, with a laugh.

However, Kieffer had learned to trust Ealom’s gut, too. Though the Election Board appointed Ealom Democratic co-director and Kieffer as the Republican, the two are longtime election authority employees who have worked together for a decade.

Ealom hopped on Amazon for hand sanitizer, disinfectant and other cleaning supplies before there were restrictions on the size of orders.

When a polling place called to drop out of Missouri’s March 10 presidential preference primary, their fears crystallized. Soon, churches and senior living centers, polling place mainstays, were calling to cancel.

As April 7 approached, county clerks and election authorities across the state called on Parson to reschedule, which he did with a March 18 executive order. That gave officials time to find new polling places and hire more “sitters” to replace the poll workers who canceled.

The change also gave local election authorities a chance to look at what they avoided. The Wisconsin primary, which went ahead as planned on April 7, was a disaster. Milwaukee, a city of 600,000, had five polling sites after most dropped out.

Not only did voters wait in line for hours, but several people, including dozens of poll workers, later tested positive for COVID-19.

Ealom said after seeing Wisconsin’s bulky barriers, meant to protect poll workers, the election authority designed its own. Kansas City’s barriers are meant to be lightweight and easier for older poll workers to disassemble or move.

Throughout preparations for the June elections, August and November hum in the back of the directors’ minds.

In August, Missouri voters will decide on primary races and whether the state should expand Medicaid eligibility. In November, there is Donald Trump or Joe Biden, and a chance to reverse redistricting measures they passed two years ago.

Missouri elections in the fall could look vastly different if Parson signs a bill that would expand mail-in ballot access.

Currently, Missourians can only request to vote by mail if they have a valid excuse under Missouri law. Those include being absent from the jurisdiction where they are registered; incapacitated due to illness; caring for someone with a disability; having a religious belief or practice that in-person voting would violate; working as an election official; and being in a witness protection program or incarcerated.

A lawsuit challenging Missouri’s current absentee ballot system is set for argument before the state Supreme Court June 15. It alleges that the pandemic qualifies under one of Missouri’s current excuses: to be confined due to illness. The suit has already suffered one defeat in circuit court.

“Missouri doesn’t need to be in this position,” Denise Lieberman, coordinator for Missouri Voter Coalition and an attorney on the case, said. “The truth of the matter is that 34 states plus the District of Columbia allow any voter to vote by mail absentee without providing a reason.”

Some states, like Michigan and Ohio, have chosen to mail every voter at least an absentee ballot application. Missouri law does allow for mass mailing of applications.

The move toward mail-in ballots has drawn the ire of President Donald Trump, who recently tweeted that “MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE. IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY.”

If the bill on Parson’s desk becomes law, Missourians will not need to provide an excuse to vote by mail. He has not indicated whether he will sign it. Even if he does, there would be conditions attached.

Voters would mail a request to their election authority for a ballot. Once approved and mailed back, however, the ballots would need to be signed by the voter and validated by a notary before their return.

Only Missourians 65 or older, immunocompromised or with certain illnesses will not have to get a ballot notarized. They would request an absentee ballot through the normal process and check off the pandemic as their “excuse.”

After he voted absentee in the election authority’s office, Amos drove to Higginsville the next day to inter his wife’ Ruth Ann’s ashes at the veteran’s columbarium there. It was raining and he was only allowed to invite 10 people because of pandemic restrictions.

Amos is frustrated with his limited options for the June election. He will be out of town Election Day, which is a legally valid excuse to vote absentee. He will be in Sedalia to drop off a necklace made with his wife’s thumbprint for one of the nieces his wife treated like their daughter.

Even if he wasn’t preoccupied Tuesday, he said he would have made plans so he could vote absentee. He, too, saw Milwaukee’s April 7 election and wasn’t willing to risk his health. Though he and his wife were born on the same day in the same year, it didn’t mean they needed to die the same year, too.

He wishes Missouri would expand its mail-in ballot system and believes the idea of widespread voter fraud through mail-in ballots pushed by the Trump administration is “conspiracy theories and made-up stories.”

“If they are not afraid of the vote, let everybody vote,” Amos said.

———

©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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