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Sept. 20, 2020

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Clark County election process has last test before November

Auditor 'very pleased' with U.S. Postal Service's performance this week

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
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A protective panel separates Vancouver residents Gail Hinchsliff, left, and Tim Richardson as they help collect and sort ballots Tuesday morning at the Clark County Elections Office.
A protective panel separates Vancouver residents Gail Hinchsliff, left, and Tim Richardson as they help collect and sort ballots Tuesday morning at the Clark County Elections Office. (Amanda Cowan/ The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Joan Liddicoat, 64, has worked as a Clark County elections helper for more than four years. But her older spouse has medical conditions, so the pandemic made her reconsider accepting a temporary job for this election.

“I had to really, really think about it,” Liddicoat said. “That’s par for the course for what we’re going through right now.”

Dozens of temporary workers and volunteers, many of whom are over 60 years old, participated in ballot processing for this week’s primary and special elections. As with most other norms this year, the elections process required some additional steps to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“They have done just an outstanding job of putting their noses to the grindstone and just getting the counting done,” Liddicoat said. “I think it runs pretty much, functionally, like it has for every other election I’ve worked.”

Before entering the building this week for shifts that could last up to 10 hours, workers and volunteers had their temperatures checked. Inside were some of the typical social distancing features: mask requirements, hand sanitizer, clear protective panels, extra more space between workers, and the option to wear gloves.

About 20 temporary workers who usually show up decided not to come to the elections office this year, presumably due to the virus, Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said. The auditor said that workers and volunteers were told to stay home if they felt sick, and one person did so, with what eventually appeared to be a cold-like illness.

Washington is an all-mail election state. Instead of hosting dozens of polling places, ballot processors gather in one location, making it administratively easier and less costly but, this year, challenging to implement.

“Vote-by-mail makes it a whole lot easier for voters to adhere to social distancing guidelines,” Kimsey said. “It makes it a whole lot harder for election workers to adhere to those social distancing guidelines.”

Despite the unusual protocols, those who have participated in the complicated and precise ballot counting process before seemed largely unfazed.

As a ballot runner, Pia Nielsen is charged with collecting ballots and transferring them from one phase of the process to another. Like everyone else in the room, Nielsen, 79, did so while wearing a mask.

“Actually no, that does not bother me at all, and I know my co-workers have the same experience. They adapt. We all adapt,” Nielsen said.

Edri Geiger heads the group of election observers from the League of Women Voters of Clark County. This year, county staff placed green tape on the floor to indicate where observers could walk and stop.

Geiger said she was impressed with the virus precautions and the way the process functioned. It was a bit more difficult, though, with senses such as hearing being limited as those in the office maintained space.

“It does put a few constraints in it,” Geiger said. “I think we do just as good observing as we did before. It’s just different.”

Looking toward Nov. 3

The elections office received nearly 1,300 ballots in the two days since polls closed for this week’s primary and special elections. The mail-in ballots, which are eligible for counting if they were postmarked before 8 p.m. Tuesday, skyrocketed voter turnout from roughly 31 percent on election night to just over 50 percent by Thursday.

By comparison, in 2016, another presidential election year, primary voter turnout was just 30 percent. The general election that year attracted 77 percent of Clark County registered voters, so the elections office could face an atypically high volume of ballots this November.

Kimsey said that the office will be looking to hire more temporary workers for the general election. Traditionally more people tend to go to the elections office to cast ballots in the general election than in the primaries. The auditor also said the office will be working to foster social distancing practices in spaces occupied by the public.

Kimsey, a Republican who has been the auditor for 21 years, said that he was “very pleased” with the performance of the U.S. Postal Service this week.

“We are so appreciative of our voters who came out in incredible numbers for this primary,” Kimsey said. “We’re really pleased that folks are participating like that, but it results in a lot of work down here.”

Liddicoat said that voters can make election workers’ jobs easier by taking care to clearly mark their choices and closely follow ballot instructions.

Despite all of the indications this week, the realities of the virus still leave a lot to be discovered up to and in the days after Nov. 3

“It’ll really depend on what the pandemic is doing, don’t you think?” Geiger said. “We don’t know what is going to happen. This is such an interesting time.”

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Columbian county government and small cities reporter
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