Local officials are working to make Alabama’s rescheduled primary runoff election as safe as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, but with new social distancing guidelines to adhere to, some voters may have to cast their ballots in an unfamiliar place and others may face longer lines at the polls.
Voters in Mobile County will decide the Republican and Democratic nominees for Alabama’s District 1 congressional seat as well as the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Doug Jones. Although both parties are represented, turnout is expected to be low given Mobile County’s history of participation in runoff elections and additional complications related to COVID-19.
The July 14 election was originally scheduled for late March before being postponed by Gov. Kay Ivey over concerns that it could spread the disease among voters. Under her emergency authority, Ivey also made it possible for all Alabama citizens to vote via absentee ballot during the runoff.
But with low numbers of local absentee ballots cast so far, officials in Mobile County want to make sure they’re prepared to safely and efficiently serve those who do show up to vote in person on July 14.
“Historically for runoffs, turnout is very low — usually between 5 to 8 percent,” Commission President Jerry Carl, who is also a candidate in the GOP congressional runoff, said. “As of [last] week, we’ve only had 1,074 absentee ballots issued and only 412 have been returned, and that’s very low. So, at this point, our citizens in Mobile County have not been responding to media campaigns about absentee balloting, or at least it’s not showing up in the numbers.”
Addressing the Mobile County Commission last week, Probate Judge Don Davis laid out some of the “special challenges” that organizing an election during a global pandemic has presented for officials. He said local and state health officials have encouraged strong social distancing practices — meaning all precincts would be able to maintain six feet of separation between all participants and poll workers.
Even though the cumulative number of voters might be higher at larger polling locations, Davis said it’s the smaller ones that present a challenge for organizers because the limited space makes it difficult to keep the appropriate social distance without logjamming the process.
“I’d say 64 percent of our voters are set to vote at polls where we have identified problems,” Davis said. “We need to come up with alternative poll locations within the precincts to find larger facilities. That would enable us to try and process the voters in those precincts, not only in a safer manner, but also in a more expeditious manner than we contemplate would happen if we were at the polls we currently utilize.”
Since Davis made those comments, the county has gotten some reprieve. A recent emergency declaration out of Ivey’s office has given election officials the ability to conduct poll worker training remotely and to limit the number of poll workers at precincts so proper distances can be maintained. However, officials did acknowledge that fewer workers could cause delays during busier parts of the day.
According to Davis, his office is continuing to work with commissioners to identify possible substitute polling locations in their districts that would be more appropriate. He said public schools were being considered as options as were some private businesses. He also noted Alabama has already received around $8 million in COVID-19 relief funding to help facilitate its election and some of those funds could be used to pay for polling locations to be cleaned before and after the election.
However, election officials are also operating on a tight timetable because voters have to be notified in advance if their polling location changes.
It’s currently unclear which polling centers could be relocating, but any that do are required by law to stay within the boundaries of the same voting precinct. Affected voters will be contacted through the mail before election day and signage will be visible at the original location to redirect voters.
While the state has rolled back requirements in the election code that will allow polling locations to operate with fewer workers, Davis said last week that many experienced poll workers — some of whom are older or have other risk factors for COVID-19 complications — have been hesitant to take the job. He noted that about 75 percent of the poll workers during the March 3 primary election were 65 or older.
Last week, Davis said “well over 100” of those poll workers say they can’t serve on July 14.
“We’ve had two large polls where all of the poll workers said they’re not available, and we’re going to have to re-staff those polls entirely,” Davis said. “That’s not easy when you don’t have a pandemic.”
This week, commissioners took another step to help protect voters and poll workers by approving the purchase of up to 1,000 sneeze shields for the upcoming runoff. Those types of polycarbonate shields are similar to barriers that have been used in retail stores during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s unclear how much the shields will cost altogether, but a previous proposal from the same company priced similar products at around $146 apiece, for a total that fell just under $100,000. Davis said 600 shields would be enough to get officials through the July 14 runoff, but commissioners approved up to 1,000 in anticipation of November’s general election when turnout is expected to be stronger.
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