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Politics, Elections and Government

How Coronavirus Concerns Affect Missouri’s June Municipal Election

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Aviva Okeson-Haberman
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft chats with Jackson County Election Board Director Tammy Brown after dropping off boxes of face masks and hand sanitizer.

Poll workers will disinfect surfaces and wear masks. Voters are also encouraged to come at “off-peak” times and follow social distancing guidelines.

Missouri voters head to the polls on June 2 for the first time since the governor declared a state of emergency because of the coronavirus.

The election, originally scheduled for April, has been adapted to fit the new coronavirus reality. Poll workers will wear masks and disinfect equipment. Signs will tell voters to stand six feet apart.

“I want our poll workers to know what our election authorities are doing to make sure that they will be safe,” Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said earlier this month during a stop at the Jackson County Election Board headquarters to drop off boxes of face masks, hand sanitizers and posters.

“This isn't just election as normal. “

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Aviva Okeson-Haberman
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft dropped off boxes of face masks, hand sanitizers and posters at the Jackson County Election Board in mid-May.

Among other things on the ballot, voters will decide the fate of a Kansas City sales tax for the fire department and whether to begin changing the structure of Clay County government.

Even with the changes, some groups have pushed for greater access to absentee voting so people who are worried about getting COVID-19 don’t have to go to a polling place in the middle of a pandemic.

While the deadline has passed for requesting an absentee ballot, voters who don’t want to go into a polling place aren’t completely out of luck.

“We have the option of voting people curbside if that's what they choose to do,” said Jackson County Election Board Director Corey Dillon. “We're hopeful that we can get through this effectively, efficiently and safely.”

Concerns about catching the virus have compounded the challenge of recruiting poll workers, according to Platte County Board of Elections Director Chris Hershey. The county reduced the number of locations from 26 to 23 sites as a result of the “pretty lean” staffing.

“Lots of folks were afraid to come and work this one,” Hershey said. “So we've had to condense some poll sites and make up the differences that way.”

Fewer poll sites might mean more people in a single location, and Hershey worries about how people will react to signs and floor markers asking them to spread out.

“People feel like their pandemic behavior is an expression of themselves and their worldview,” Hershey said. “So there's only so much we can control how people behave.”

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Aviva Okeson-Haberman
A sign outside the Jackson County Board of Elections office reminds people to stand six feet apart.

Hershey and Dillon are both asking voters to be patient with poll workers as everyone adjusts to voting during a pandemic.

“I hate to sound like I'm asking voters to do anything ‘cause that seems to be a big source of the backlash at this point,” Hershey said. “But I would say to be patient and to be socially distant. If you're OK wearing a mask out, I would sure appreciate it if they'd wear a mask out.”

In neighboring Clay County, Terri Welk says she plans to wear a mask to her polling place. She’s been careful about going out and keeps track of any place she visits.

“You're now thrown into this situation where you want to go vote, but at the same time, you don't know if those people have been as careful as you have,” Welk said.

Because she votes in a rural part of the county, Welk said, she isn’t too worried.

Among other safety measures, Clay County is allowing only 10 voters into a polling place at one time and assigning a poll worker to wipe down the polling place’s door handle and make sure there aren’t too many people inside, Election Board Director Tiffany Francis said in an email.

Welk said she hopes by the August and November elections it will be easier to get an absentee ballot.

“If there's anything that can reduce the number of people that actually have to go to the polls, I think most people would feel more comfortable with that approach,” Welk said.

Missouri law currently allows voting absentee if someone is confined due to illness. Earlier this month, Missouri lawmakers sent a bill to the governor’s desk that would allow voters to request an absentee ballot if they contracted COVID-19 or if they’re in an at-risk category, such as being 65 or older or having a compromised immune system.

Ashcroft has resisted a push from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri to allow absentee ballots for people who are scared of getting the coronavirus.

“Even in times of a global pandemic or times when we don't have that, we should expect our elected officials to follow the law. And the law does not give me the authority to do that,” Ashcroft said.

Looming over all of this is the fact that most people don’t even turn out for municipal elections, according to Hershey. During his county’s municipal election last year, just 16% of voters made it to the polls. He expects an even lower turnout this year.

“It's kinda sad,” Hershey said, “but from a public health standpoint, that's going to be a pretty big help I think for us.”