If ever there was a question regarding the accuracy of every ballot submitted in an election, it is now. Covid has definitely influenced the way people will be voting this year, add to that the public’s concern of the post offices being shut down, and one of the most controversial elections in our history. The ability to trust in our great privilege as Americans to cast our ballots and be assured it will be counted has withered amongst many.
Great pains go into ensuring that each vote is properly counted and processed. Clearwater County Clerk, Carrie Bird shared what this year has been like and all that goes into the process of counting those ballots. The county can rest assured we are in good hands, Bird is well-qualified in ensuring this election runs smoothly. She has worked with the county’s elections since 1991 and has administered the elections since being elected Clerk in 2008, making sure that the voice of the people in Clearwater County can be heard all the way to the White House.
“Unlike the primary election in May of this year polling places were closed due to the uncertainties from COVID 19,” said Bird, “our polling places will all be open, and in adherence with the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines for social distancing. We cannot require voters to wear masks, although they will be highly recommended for the safety of our poll workers.” Poll workers will be masked.
Other amenities to be considered are the use of electronic poll books which were recently purchased by the county, eliminating the handling of paper pollbooks. Registered voters will be asked to sign in on a tablet which will verify registration and address. For sanitation purposes, the tablet is covered in a protective type of covering similar to Saran Wrap, which is disposable and replaced with each use.
Because a good number of the county’s previous poll workers are seniors and at higher risk of exposure to Covid, recruitment began early to find enough workers to cover the nine polling places with at least four to five people at each polling location. “It’s a long shift from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and potentially longer if there’s a glitch,’ said Bird, “Once again our community has stepped up, and now will need training to be ready at the polls.
“In all the confusion of the times, our office has received more calls regarding the post office than the polling places for this election. The post office has sent out notices asking those who are requesting absentee ballots to do so early to allow for sufficient time to return the ballot in the mail, as it takes about three days. We also have a large volume of calls asking if an absentee ballot was requested in May for this election. Folks can view this information on idahovotes.gov.”
Ballots requested for our military personnel and those overseas were sent out Sept. 18. Absentee ballots can be sent out as early as 45 days but not less than 30 days before the election. The Vote by Mail precinct ballots are sent 20 days before the election.
Of 14 precincts, Clearwater County has five Vote by Mail precincts; they are the communities in which there are no suitable locations to have a polling place. In all, there are approximately 370 ballots to be mailed and returned for those communities. “Normally that is not a big deal,” explains Bird, but for the primaries we had close to 2400 mail in and absentee ballots to process, which took eight of us, three to four hours for three nights in addition to election night to count.
The first person opens the outside envelope with the voter’s signature and checks the name off the list. The second person opens the ballot envelope and removes the voted ballot envelope from the envelope and passes it to the third person. The third person opens the voted ballot envelope, removes the ballot and stacks them in ten and then hands them to the fourth person, who puts them into the DS200, which counts the ballot, but does not display a tally. The DS200 indicates how many ballots have been put into the machine for counting. The envelopes and the signed envelopes are all placed in stacks of 10, balancing along the way.
“If you have a write-in candidate or a ballot needs to be duplicated because it won’t feed into the DS200 then we all must stop to duplicate the ballot. It takes four people to do this: one to read, one to watch them read, one to write and one to watch the duplication to make sure it’s done correctly.”
The county received the DS200 digital scanner voting machines initially used in the consolidated election of August in 2013. They have helped to expedite the processing of ballots faster and more efficiently than ever before. Bird confirms our county was the first to receive them in the State of Idaho.
But new equipment has its consequences as well and ironically, the Secretary of State has purchased a brand new election system to have arrived in June of this year, shutting the old system down right after the May primaries. So now there is a new system to learn which they have had to learn quickly. The new system is working well and communicates well throughout the state.
In past elections, not counting this year’s primary election, there typically have been about 100 absentee ballots requested. There have been 1,709 absentee ballot requests as of Oct. 9. Processing these ballots takes considerably more time and other accommodations to be made as well.
“The Clerks Association went to the legislature and asked for extra days to process the absentee ballots as were allowed by the governor for the primaries. The request was accepted but legislators tacked on the requirement of an electronic surveillance system to run 24 hour streaming. The statute allows us to open absentee and mail-in ballots up to seven days before, but as of this time though we have the ability to electronically record the process, we have no way of streaming. That is a whole different task. We’re still trying to decide how to proceed.”
The cost to the county for mailing ballots and the pre-paid postage for the return envelope is $2.60 each. Bird explained, “We were concerned that if we didn’t include the pre-paid envelope to return the ballot we might not receive it, or it could be lost due to insufficient postage. Some of the expenses may be covered by the CARES Act or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, as it is one more Covid related expense. Anything over and above the county’s usual expenses can be applied.
“This could be the new norm, we don’t know how long Covid will last,” added Bird. “Once people realize how easy it is to request and fill out an absentee ballot, I anticipate more will be inclined to vote by mail. It enables the people to vote early from the privacy of their own home, if they are unsure of a question, they can take time to learn more before deciding, they can eliminate a trip to the polls, and those with work schedules and/or other obligations, can be assured their vote will be cast in a timely manner.”
Whichever way one chooses to vote is not the issue, the important idea is protecting the integrity and honor of casting our ballots and having a voice in the way in the days to come,
(Watch for the Notice of Election legal in next week’s issue, and the Sample Ballot legal in the Oct. 28 issue of the Clearwater Tribune.)