Wednesday, November 25, 2020

‘There’s a lot of moving parts’: Election workers discuss voter turnout, expectations for November

August 5, 2020
A roll of stickers sits on a table during the election March 10, 2020.
A roll of stickers sits on a table during the election March 10, 2020. —
Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

In a primary election unlike any other, poll workers masked up from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. for what many considered to be a dry run for an expectedly busy general election in November. 

In-person voting, however, was marked with low voter turnout, social distancing and other safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in polling places. 

According to acting Chair of Precinct 2 Sam Underwood, the number of people voting in-person is expectedly “very low” in comparison with other primaries. 

“It’s slow today, and we expected it to be slow,” Underwood said. “So, we’re handling it very well, and it’s as expected.” 

While some off-campus precincts in the city exceeded 100 voters, on-campus precincts saw significantly fewer voters. Twenty two ballots were cast at the Brody Hall precinct, and 15 voters showed up at the MSU Union location, according to precinct chairs.

The two precincts located in IM Sports East — 13 and 14 — had 13 and 9 voters, respectively, according to Chair of Precinct 14 Beth Ripley.

“Since so many people voted absentee, we’re seeing a much lower in-person turnout,” Chair of Precinct 3 Margie Ring said.

The uptick in votes via absent voter ballots was made possible when a 2018 ballot proposal passed, allowing no-reason absentee voting, among other election reforms and rights. 

Additionally, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced in May that all Michigan voters would receive an application to vote by mail for both the primary and general elections to ensure safe voting in the era of COVID-19. 

“People are taking advantage of no-reason absentee voting, and not just because they can, it just makes it more accessible,” Chair of Precinct 11 Marie Wicks said. “I think more people are voting as a result of that.”

Of the 6,863 absent voter ballots issued to East Lansing voters, 4,886 were returned before election day.

Only 3,300 absentee ballots were returned before the 2016 presidential election, Wicks, who was East Lansing’s city clerk at the time, said.

Despite the prevalence of absentee voting this election, precincts were still required by the state to be open for in-person voting — with added safety measures.

“I think that we have implemented some very beneficial practices in terms of practices to increase safety for both the workers as well as those people who come out to vote,” Chair of Precinct 1 Wendy Longpre said.

Among the safety precautions put in place include plexiglass shields separating voters from election workers, easily-sanitized materials and state-provided PPE equipment such as masks and hand-washing products.

Despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order allowing voters to not wear facial coverings in polling places, however, many of the precinct chairs said all voters wore masks to the polls. 

“Voters are not required to (wear masks), and nobody has come in without a mask,” Wicks said.

Safety was also reinforced because of an increase in volunteers working at the polling locations. 

“We have more people this time, so the volunteers just came through,” Chair of Precinct 5 Teresa Bell said. “It was definitely what we needed. It was phenomenal on their part.”

Bell said additional volunteers are doing a lot of cleaning by immediately sanitizing voting booths after a voter left. 

“Actually, it’s been easier because of the amount of volunteers,” Bell said.

To adhere to social distancing regulations set forth by the governor, polling locations have been restructured and rearranged to allow for more space and to assure voters are six feet apart from one another. 

Longpre’s precinct, located in Brody Hall, is naturally spacious, so physical distancing was not so difficult to accomplish. 

“This particular precinct really has a good deal of space around it, and so I would envision that even if we got quite busy, there would be plenty of opportunity for people to space out,” Longpre said.

Bell said the hardest thing about overseeing the voting process was making sure everything was spaced at least six feet apart. 

“We have to keep people six feet apart,” Bell said. “They’re done with their ballots, they want to get in line and put them through the tabulator, and we have to hold them back and make them wait.”

While spacing was easy to maintain with such low in-person turnout, the November general election still looms as coronavirus cases continue to increase.

“This is a good dry run, except for the fact that we don’t have as many people … as what we’re anticipating for November,” Ripley said. “Practice makes perfect, right?”

Since general elections already attract more people to the polls than primaries do, Ripley said she has concerns about large voter turnout and crowding come November. 

“It is a little more stressful for us as election workers, just because it is busier,” Ripley said. “Then, that sort of segways into the whole pandemic thing, where when it’s busier and you’re trying to keep those people spaced apart, that’s going to take a little more effort.”

Chair of Precinct 12 Cathy Scott said she is worried about spacing for the presidential election, given the larger number of people who will be voting in it.

“In previous presidential elections, we’ve been packed, and people have had to wait a long time,” Scott said. “The longer you’re in a confined space, the higher your risk, so (it’s) certainly a problem.”

According to Scott, the low voter turnout has permitted the primary to be a “trial” for her precinct, allowing them to rethink and rearrange their set-up, which she said will make November easier.

Additionally, Scott’s polling location, located at the MSU Union, relocated rooms to allow for more space and heightened distancing.

While it is surely an unprecedented time for an election, many poll workers are optimistic for the upcoming November election and encourage the use of PPE or absent voter ballots to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Wicks said. “I’m hopeful that the curve will be flattened. I assume we’ll all be wearing PPE. I hope people vote absentee, but as long as people wear their masks when they’re coming in.”

Wicks, however, still holds hope that the general election can carry on safely. 

“If everybody does their part, I think we can be safe in November,” Wicks said.

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