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

Election signs, like one advertising Democracy N.C.’s nonpartisan voter call line, forefront, sit outside the Carteret County Board of Elections in Beaufort. One-stop early voting begins Thursday. (Jackie Starkey photo) 

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.

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