This Election Day — and the preparations for it — are unlike any other. While many voters will cast their ballots by mail, some will cast their ballot at their local polling place. They’ll be met with a health and safety apparatus that includes masks, face shields, plexiglass, social distancing markers, hand sanitizer and single-use pen and stylus combos in order to help keep voters safe from COVID-19.
“I’m not sure what else we could do to make it safer for the voters,” said Tiffany Francis, Democratic director of the Clay County, Missouri, election authority. “We’re doing the best we can.”
In order to more safely conduct elections this year, states across the country have received millions in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding from the federal government: Kansas received $4.6 million, and Missouri received $7.6 million.
It’s hard to predict what the COVID-19 pandemic will look like in Missouri and Kansas come Election Day, but cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in the Midwest, even though they have been decreasing elsewhere in the U.S. As of Oct. 4, the average weekly number of COVID-19 showed an increase of 11% in Kansas and a decrease of 7% in Missouri, when compared to two weeks prior.
On both sides of the state line, voters in the Kansas City metro can expect to see poll workers wearing face masks. Masks are required by health department guidances in Jackson, Platte, Clay and Wyandotte counties, with Johnson County upholding Gov. Laura Kelly’s state order. Some workers will also wear face shields and, optionally, gloves. Poll workers will be behind plexiglass sneeze guards, like the ones that have been commonly installed at grocery stores during the pandemic, local election authorities say.
But poll workers who meet certain criteria, like medical exemptions, aren’t required to wear masks on Election Day. In Platte County, Missouri, the local election office says that just one of their 220 workers has a medical exemption.
“She is going to be working and isn’t going to be wearing a cloth mask, but is going to be wearing a shield most of the day,” said Chris Hershey, director of the Platte County election authority. “It doesn’t look like full compliance, but it actually is.”
Hershey added that if a new worker showed up to training without a mask, it was unlikely that they would be asked back.
Recently, an email to poll workers in St. Charles County said that election judges and supervisors were required to have face masks near them but didn’t have to wear them unless a voter asked them to, and should “act surprised” that they were not wearing personal protective equipment.
If a Kansas City voter sees a poll worker who isn’t wearing PPE, they should call their election authority, said Francis with the Clay County election authority. “We need to make sure people are taking the proper precautions,” she said.
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But if another voter at the polling place refuses to wear a mask, there isn’t much that concerned people can do, according to local election authorities. Polling places will not be enforcing mask orders.
“We can’t ask anyone to leave if in line at a polling location,” said Nathan Carter, office administrator for the Johnson County, Kansas, election authority. “We may ask if that person wants to put on a mask. We’re doing what we can to make sure that folks are standing 6 feet apart and taking all precautions we can on our end.”
Francis suggests that people do their best to maintain the proper 6 feet of distance from other voters, especially someone who isn’t wearing a mask, stepping to the side and out of line if necessary.
“If they refuse to wear (a mask) or have a health condition, we will go ahead and process them as quickly as possible,” she said.
Polling places will have markers on the ground to assist with proper social distancing. They also will have a limited supply of masks available for voters who may have forgotten theirs at home. But there will not be enough masks for every voter.
Mary Ann Weiner, executive assistant at the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners, said it is highly encouraged that voters bring their own masks to the polls.
Protections for poll workers
Poll workers have been trained to disinfect equipment and will be doing so between voters, local election authorities say. All counties also will have either a single-use pen and stylus combination for voters to use or single-use pens with styluses that will be disinfected after each use.
Poll workers will have their own small bottles of hand sanitizer, and voters will have hand sanitizer available to them via larger pump dispensers, say election authorities. They have previous experience with supplying hand sanitizer during the primary election in August.
“The way we stocked in August was overkill, just going to do that again,” Hershey said, adding that the hand sanitizer containers used for the primary were more than half full afterward.
If Missourians are sick on Election Day, they can make use of curbside voting to help keep other voters safe, said Clay County and Kansas City election authorities.
“Anyone that is COVID positive is asked to come to the curbside. There are special precautions for that, and they need to call before they arrive,” said Weiner, with the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners.
A bipartisan team of poll workers will meet curbside voters and administer a ballot in a sealed bag. Curbside voters should expect a possibly longer wait time.
Voters concerned about safety or crowds on Election Day still have time to request a ballot to vote by mail or vote in advance. Missourians can send in absentee or mail-in voter requests until Oct. 21. Missouri voters can also go in-person for advance absentee voting until the day before the election, Nov. 2. Kansans have until Oct. 27 to submit their mail-in ballot request and can vote in advance until Nov. 2.
“I would absolutely vote absentee mail or by mail right now because you don’t know what’s going to happen a week or two before the election,” said Hershey, with the Platte County election authority.
The Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department says that if a voter shows up to their polling place on Election Day and has safety concerns about others not wearing masks or social distancing, they won’t have alternative voting options.
“At that point, there’s not a lot they can do, because at that point, it really wouldn’t be possible, for example, for them to go to the election board and do an absentee ballot,” said Frank Thompson, deputy director of the Kansas City Health Department.
“If folks are concerned, they really should look at doing either the mail-in voting or the absentee in person voting so that they can avoid those crowds.”
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Brittany Callan is the health and environment reporter at The Beacon and a Report for America corps member. You can reach Brittany at email@example.com. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.