Early Voting, Pandemic Style

Those of us hard at work at the Putnam County Election Commission are smiling at voters, even though they can’t tell it.

Early voting is in full swing and folks have been streaming into our office to cast their ballots. Anyone who’s voted early in the past will notice some changes. Most obvious are the glass panels that separate voters from the front office staff. The glass was actually ordered before Covid-19 hit, installed to protect employees not from viruses but from voters who might, for whatever reason, become belligerent.

And, yeah, I’ve seen it happen. Sometimes, voters get angry when asked to show a photo ID.  Or when told they can’t wear or carry anything (shirt, cap, tote bag, campaign button, etc.) endorsing a candidate whose name is on the ballot. Or when reminded not to talk on a cell phone while in the building. It rarely happens, but it can be scary when it does.

All employees wear face masks now, and though we can’t require it of voters, we appreciate those who do.

The most interesting change, from my point of view, is what we’ve done with the ballpoint pens voters use to sign paperwork. In olden times, several pens were set out on the counter. Sometimes these pens were wild and crazy, topped with fuzzy hair or a miniature light bulb. We hoped they wouldn’t go missing, though they often did. As did many of our not-so-fancy pens.

Now, each registrar has dozens of pens that have been thoroughly sprayed with Lysol. When a voter steps to the counter, he or she is handed paperwork and a sanitized pen. When all writing is done, the voter drops the used pen into a cardboard box that says USED PENS and slides the papers back to the clerk through a small window. Hand sanitizer is available at every station. The process is clean and efficient, and—best of all—our pens don’t walk away. An election worker periodically stops by to collect and re-sanitize the used pens and to scour the counter with Clorox wipes.

Behind the moveable screen that now completely separates registrars from the “big room” are the voting machines and machine operators, who—in the friendliest possible way—ask that voters maintain social distancing. Voters are offered disposable gloves so the buttons on the machines won’t be contaminated. When ballots are cast and voters leave the machines, they toss used gloves into a trash can and promptly exit the building.

Wonderful. Right?

Yes and no. I believe our new system is as Covid-safe as it’s possible to make it, but the changes obviously require a lot of extra work and a lot of added expense. It’s important and necessary that, with the threat of coronavirus looming large, we’ve adapted. But I miss the old days, when people clustered together in the parking lot and lobby, laughing and talking while waiting their turn to vote. The last time I worked at the election office was March 3, tornado day, when eight precincts couldn’t open because of the devastation. There wasn’t much laughter that horrible day, but there were plenty of hugs and handshakes and from-the-heart conversations.

We all long for a time when this pandemic is nothing but a memory. We want to touch each other. We want to stand closer than six feet. We want to throw open doors and take down screens and—while smiling at voters with no masks covering our faces—remind them to please leave our ink pens on the counter.

Early voting at the Putnam County Election Commission, located at 705 County Services Drive, continues through August 1. Mail-in ballots must be requested by July 30. Election Day is Thursday, August 6. Your vote matters.

(July 25, 2020)