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Elections Officials Manage COVID-19 Challenges

Jul 8, 2020

Tape on the floor of the polling center at the Taylor County Plaza shows voters how to keep six feet of distance while waiting in line.  A hand sanitizer dispenser stands just inside the door, and jugs of it sit on tables.  This election, poll workers are offering voters disposable gloves and face masks. 

Voting booths are now six feet apart, making some previous polling locations untenable.
Credit Heather Claborn / KACU

“Every election does present its own unique challenges.  However, COVID-19 has created its own unique set of challenges.”  Freda Ragan, Taylor County’s Election Administrator says she had to schedule extra trainings.  Her office has worked to track down enough PPE for volunteers and voters.  And during the early voting period for the runoff election, Taylor County is offering a single polling location instead of the usual five.  “Some of the locations that we’re typically at were a little hesitant because of the virus and concerned about voting and the number of people that may come in and gather at that one location.  And so we opted to just do the one location for this election.” Ragan said.

The Taylor County Plaza hosts the only early voting site during the runoff election.
Credit Heather Claborn / KACU

Some polling locations, such as grocery stores, are cramped on space, and won’t be viable during an election that requires booths to be six feet apart.  So as she looks ahead to the November Presidential Election, she’s scouting for new locations.  She’s also started recruiting volunteers.  

Poll workers are often folks with extra time on their hands…like retirees.  And some of them can’t risk being exposed to COVID-19, or taking germs home to a spouse with a compromised immune system.  Dale Boecker, who’s retired from the Air Force and retired as a corrections officer for the state, says he has no concerns.   “It’s just going to be really silly, I think.  I’m kind of a non-participant in the COVID-19 thingy.  I will help Freda in the election because I’ve done it so long and she does need the help.”

Boecker got hooked on helping with elections more than a decade ago, and he says he’d do almost anything for Freda.  Almost.    “I won’t wear a mask,” Boecker said.  “It’s going to be a plastic shield if they will give me that option.  If I have to wear the cloth mask or paper mask, I will not do that.”

Taylor County does have face shields for poll workers.  But all of their precautions aren’t enough to make all volunteers or voters comfortable enough to show up at the polls.  Linda Goolsbee usually helps with elections but she won’t be volunteering this year.  “Even though I feel sure they have done everything in their power for the distancing and all of that, and I always wear a mask when I go out,  my husband and I are both in the age group that would be hit the hardest.  And we would not have easy cases.  And I just can’t take that chance.”

Goolsbee is also mailing in her ballot, and thinks everyone should be able to vote by mail.  

But the Texas Supreme Court ruled that lack of immunity to COVID-19 doesn’t make voters eligible for  a mail-ballot. Still, Ragan says requests for mail ballots in Taylor County are up 38 percent over the March primary, and - SHE ADDS -- her office doesn’t have time to verify each mail-ballot applicant’s claims.   “Each voter needs to assess their own situation.” Ragan says.  “And if they feel like they meet that criteria, then they need to just submit a request to our office, and then we will process their application and send them a ballot.”

Freda Ragan demonstrates the mobility of the voting tablet for curbside voting.
Credit Heather Claborn / KACU

But there’s another option for voters nervous about COVID-19 risks.  “Curbside voting is a process that is available, and has always been available for those individuals that are physically unable to make it into the polling place.”  Ragan says they’re recommending voters who aren’t feeling well take advantage of this option.   

Taylor County has a special parking space with a call-button for curbside voting.  Otherwise voters can call her office and request the service.  “We simply lift the tablet out of its docking station and take the tablet out to the voter,” Ragan explained.  “And then they can cast their ballot in the privacy and comfort of their vehicle.” 

But Ragan asks voters to be patient with the process, which takes extra time.  

And she wants to make voters aware that they’ll need extra patience in November, no matter how they vote.  Turnout is always high in a presidential election.  Ballots won’t include a straight-party option, and the ballots will be longer, with the city and school elections added to them.  Ragan anticipates long lines on November 3rd.  Her advice?  Take advantage of November’s early voting period.