With capacity limits, cleaning procedures ready, officials to open early voting sites Thursday

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CARTERET COUNTY — After months of advertising, spending, plenty of mailings and road signs and a seemingly unending campaign cycle, North Carolina voters can finally cast a ballot in person Thursday, when early voting in the November election begins.

One-stop early voting in the Tuesday, Nov. 3 General Election runs through Saturday, Oct. 31.  

Carteret County will have four early voting sites – the County Board of Elections office in Beaufort, Western Park Community Center in Cedar Point, Fort Benjamin Park Recreation Center in Newport and the Morehead City Parks and Recreation building.

The sites will be open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., with the exception of Oct. 31, when they close at 3 p.m.

The collision of the popularity of presidential elections and the coronavirus pandemic have created new challenges, and elections offices across the state have had to devise means to safely conduct in-person voting.

“We are offering masks and pens to every registered voter,” Carteret County Board of Elections Director Caitlin Sabadish said Monday afternoon as phones at the office rang continuously. “We can’t require voters to wear masks, but we do have enough to offer everyone.”

One-stop personnel also have personal protective equipment, including masks, face shields, plastic dividers and gloves, all to protect the workers, who tend to skew older in Carteret County. Poll workers will have their temperatures checked each day.

In addition, officials will limit capacity at early voting sites, and voters in line will be asked to maintain 6 feet of distance from others.

“We’ve got maximum capacity based on the square footage … we kind of made a layout” for each one-stop site, Ms. Sabadish noted.

Once the room is at capacity – a limit that includes each site’s 10 workers per shift and party observers – voters will queue and one person will be allowed to enter as another exits.

“We do have extra precinct officials to monitor exterior lines,” Ms. Sabadish said.

Once inside, voters – ideally wearing masks – will be spaced from others while they check in and mark their ballots. One precinct official will be designated to wipe down voting booths after each voter.

There will be no traditional “I Voted” stickers. Instead, voters will be allowed to keep the custom pen – branded for the 2020 election – as a token of civic participation.

County elections officials said they are not overly concerned about lines or long wait times, especially given the increase in Saturday voting opportunities. For those who want to avoid a wait during one-stop, Ms. Sabadish recommends avoiding the first and last day of early voting, along with lunchtime and the 5-6 p.m. hour.

In the 2016 General Election, roughly 5,000 voters visited each of the four sites in Carteret County during the one-stop period, the office said.

Whether or not the measures will protect voters and poll workers and prevent the spread of COVID-19 remains to be seen.

Ms. Sabadish said orchestrating the new guidelines has been “challenging,” but Carteret County has met the safety requirements outlined by the State Board of Elections earlier this year.

Concerns over the spread of the coronavirus have all but taken over standard preparations for the fall’s election. Absentee-by-mail voting has seen a sharp increase, with the county fielding roughly 6,000 requests for mail-in ballots as of Tuesday. That compares to 1,309 total mail-in ballots castin 2016.  

The volume, Ms. Sabadish noted, is extraordinary and there are other considerations, as well. The office has increased the number of parking spaces for curbside voting, purchased more bells curbside voters can ring for service and expanded the buffer zone – an area electioneers are not allowed to solicit or pass out campaign materials in – to extend beyond the curbside area. Poll workers who facilitate curbside voting will wear PPE.

The county lost some longtime poll workers who did not feel comfortable working amid the pandemic, the director said, but the office was able to staff the sites fully. Ms. Sabadish and Deputy Director Margot Burke said poll worker feedback on the safety measures has been largely positive and they are instructing workers to use their best judgement in the event voters are unhappy with the measures when they visit the polls. 

“It is going to be contentious, I think, but we’re all there for a common goal,” Ms. Sabadish said. 

The safety precautions also come at a cost. The office is working with the county’s finance and emergency management departments to locate, purchase and store PPE and other equipment.

Most of the increased cost associated with the pandemic should be covered by three federal opportunities: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Help American Vote Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Kelly Woodruff, with the county finance department, said officials are looking at roughly $96,400 available in CARES Act money for the election, along with funding between $10,000 and $250,000 from HAVA, but the expenses continue and total implementation costs are a moving target.

“I don’t think we’ve blown that budget,” Ms. Sabadish, the elections director, said Monday. “By the end of the election, it might be a different story.”

 

Contact Jackie Starkey at 252-726-7081, ext. 225; email jackie@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @jackieccnt.

State legislative candidates talk schools, coronavirus at LWV forum

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Reporter's note: This article was updated at 12:22 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, with more information.

CARTERET COUNTY  Four of the five candidates for state House of Representatives and Senate seats that represent Carteret County participated in a polite forum Thursday night on Zoom moderated by Tom Kies, president of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce.

Those who took questions were Republican Norman Sanderson of Pamlico County, the incumbent in state Senate District 2; his challengers, Democrat Libbie Griffin and Libertarian Tim Harris, both of New Bern; and Beaufort Democrat Buck Bayliff, who is running against incumbent Republican Pat McElraft of Emerald Isle for the state House District 13 seat. Rep. McElraft did not participate because she recently underwent preventive triple heart bypass surgery. The reason for her absence was not mentioned during the forum.

The Carteret County League of Women Voters hosted the forum, and topics included the novel coronavirus pandemic, education and schools, health care and insurance and food insecurity. Each candidate also gave opening and closing remarks.

On the pandemic, Ms. Griffin said she was satisfied with the leadership of N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, who she said has helped keep the state’s residents “as safe as he could.”

Sen. Sanderson, on the other hand, decried what he called a “one-size-fits-all” policy and said the governor should allow specific areas more leeway in deciding what kinds of businesses should open and when. Businesses, he said, have suffered unnecessarily, harming the economy and resulting in lost jobs.

Mr. Harris, called the state’s response to the pandemic “an abject failure,” and said the state places “too much power in the governor.”

On education, all the candidates said they thought Carteret County education institutions, including Carteret Community College, are excellent.

In general, however, Mr. Harris said education has been in decline for many years. He said the community college system is important and that not all students need to go to college and earn four-year degrees to get good jobs.

Mr. Bayliff said the state needs to put more money into schools, which he said have declined in recent years, even though Carteret’s schools are doing a good job. Despite the decline, he said the state’s “school system is not broken.”

Sen. Sanderson said he looks forward to working with the legislature to give community colleges more money so they can more fully meet the needs of the communities they serve.

On health care, Ms. Griffin said she wants to “expand Medicare and Obamacare,” needs she said are amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. Expansion would help many people who are uninsured and would create jobs.

Mr. Bayliff agreed with Ms. Griffin, saying too many children, especially, are uninsured.

Sen. Sanderson said more “cost transparency” is needed in health care, but said the key is to “help people get jobs so they can buy their own insurance.”

In individual statements, candidates touched on various issues. Mr. Harris, for example, talked about the need for equal justice under the law and his support for cannabis law reform.

“Twentieth century policies are failing us,” he said, “and it’s time to move into the 21st century.”

Ms. Griffin said she supports public transportation and extending high-speed internet service into rural areas.

Mr. Bayliff also cited the need to increase access to high-speed internet service and voice his opposition to offshore oil and gas drilling.

Sen. Sanderson reiterated the need for the state to “reopen” and get people back to work and improve the economy.

 

Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.

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