Coronavirus brings changes to polling places in Missouri

LIBERTY, Mo. (AP) — Voters who turn out for local elections across Missouri on Tuesday will find several changes made in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and election officials will be watching to learn lessons for much larger and busier elections looming in August and November.

Election officials have been scrambling to improve safety for voters and poll workers since Republican Gov. Mike Parson ordered local elections moved from April 7 to Tuesday. While each county will be different, voters are likely to see poll workers with masks or face shields, social distancing requirements, abundant sanitizers and different or fewer polling locations.

With local elections generally drawing low voter turnout, Tuesday's vote will be important as a test run for August primaries and the general election in November, when much larger crowds are expected.

Tuesday's election "is on a whole different level than those elections,” said Jackson County election director Corey Dillon. “This is a good dry run, to help us work out the kinks and figure out what to anticipate for those major elections.”

Jackson County moved some of its polling sites to larger buildings, such as school gymnasiums, to accommodate 6-foot (1.8-meter) social distancing requirements and respond to a drop in poll workers. The county also created a new position for curbside voting/sanitizing judge to help people who want to vote but don’t want to go inside the polling place.

While counties have always offered curbside voting for those with low mobility, Dillon said she anticipated more people might take advantage of the option this year. Other county officials said they hope voters will forego curbside voting and warned those who don't would have to be patient while waiting for their ballots.

Chris Hershey, elections director in Platte County, said the biggest challenge preparing for this election was finding enough poll workers, after several past volunteers declined to help because of concern about the virus. The county reduced its polling sites from 26 to 23 and Hershey said he's confident he has enough volunteers, although it will be “lean” at some sites.

Clay County moved five polling sites because some churches that had been used in the past were unavailable, said election director Patty Lamb.

Five county officials said they had seen only a small uptick in requests for absentee ballots for this election, likely because the state requires voters to choose between six valid excuses to vote absentee. While illness is one of the excuses, the law is not clear on whether a healthy person concerned about catching or spreading the coronavirus an acceptable reason.

Hershey said he hopes Parson will sign a bill approved by the Missouri Legislature this session to ensure expanded access to absentee voting before the August election.

“It would ease a lot of concerns if we could get up to 40% of voting done absentee in upcoming elections,” he said. “It would help with lines, sanitation, a lot of our concerns that will be magnified with high voter turnout.”