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Over the past two weeks, county election officials in Montana have begun exploring ways to prevent the potential transmission of coronavirus during the June 2 primary election. Those plans include sanitizing polling stations with antiviral wipes, providing non-powdered latex-free gloves to poll staffers, and offering online video training for election judges in lieu of in-person training sessions. But the surest way officials have settled on so far to avoid the spread of disease is to urge voters to register absentee.

“This may be the issue that pushes people who have loved being polling-place voters in the past toward signing up to be an absentee voter,” said Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman.

Absentee ballot applications must be received by a county election office by noon on the day before the election, and ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Voters can download the application and get more information at the Montana secretary of state’s website. Anyone who is unsure whether they’re registered to vote absentee can check their status on the My Voter Page.

Concern about the spread of the coronavirus has already taken a toll on election activities elsewhere in the U.S. This past weekend, the Chicago Tribune reported that approximately 850 election judges had informed the Cook County Clerk’s office they would not show up for the March 17 primary, spurring a last-minute social media call for replacements and the offer of a $200 stipend as added incentive. Numerous states have already taken steps to prevent the possible spread of the virus during upcoming primary elections, though U.S. Rep. Darren Soto recently characterized the situation in his home state of Florida as “playing catch up.” Ohio was thrust into confusion late Monday, March 16, when Gov. Mike DeWine made an eleventh-hour announcement that polls would not open as scheduled for Ohio’s March 17 primary.

Montana election officials voice a number of specific concerns related to the coronavirus. There’s the obvious risk of exposure to voters casting their ballots at the polls, and Seaman said his office secured a store of cleaning supplies earlier this month, ahead of the public rush that has left store shelves across Missoula bare. Lewis and Clark County Elections Supervisor Audrey McCue said her office ordered enough virus protection kits from a third-party vendor to stock each of the county’s 18 polling stations, and spent $2,000 on additional sanitizing supplies. Seaman added that Missoula County also intends to replacing the envelopes used by polling staff so they can be sealed without saliva, and said he is communicating with assisted-living and nursing home facilities to guarantee that residents who wish to register absentee can do so.

“Never during my tenure have we wiped down voting booths or been concerned about grabbing somebody’s photo ID from them. Just like shaking a buddy’s hand — you’ve never given that a thought until about two or three weeks ago.”

—Lewis and Clark County election judge Jeff Sillick

The other key consideration county officials are addressing is the health and safety of election judges. Of the 245 judges who worked the 2018 general election in Lewis and Clark County, McCue said, 200 were over the age of 60, falling into the demographic that is most at risk from the coronavirus. 

“I’ve had one judge who said on advice of their doctor they couldn’t work the election or come to judge training,” McCue said. “I’ve had a few judges who have said they think they’re going to work unless things get much worse in our public health environment.”

Missoula County has 650 election judges on deck, Seaman said, which gives his office a pool of reserves in case some judges become sick before the primary.

Jeff Sillick has served as an election judge in Lewis and Clark County since the early 2000s, and said he shares McCue’s concern. Based on his experience, election judges are primarily retirees seeking to give back to their communities. The issue concerned Sillick enough that he recently reached out to Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s office to ask what could be done to minimize the risk. Sillick said on Monday that he has yet to hear back. 

“Never during my tenure have we wiped down voting booths or been concerned about grabbing somebody’s photo ID from them,” Sillick said. “Just like shaking a buddy’s hand — you’ve never given that a thought until about two or three weeks ago.”

Dana Corson, Stapleton’s director of elections and voter services, had not responded by Tuesday morning to questions emailed Monday morning by Montana Free Press. Jeff Martin, president of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders, said the task of “contingency planning” in Montana has so far fallen to county election officials. According to McCue, precautionary measures were the subject of a March 6 conference call held for election officials nationwide by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That call also included the Centers for Disease Control and the federal Election Assistance Commission. Some of the strategies discussed, McCue said, were recruitment of younger polling station workers and relocation of polling stations located at senior citizen facilities. McCue said he has also begun developing a contingency plan to consolidate polling places in Helena to just one or a few locations — an approach that would enable the county to serve voters even if the fear of virus transmission leads to a drop in volunteer staffers.

Citing recent developments in other state primaries, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Whitney Williams issued a statement March 16 urging Stapleton to conduct Montana’s 2020 primary entirely by mail. Williams argued that such a move would ensure not only the safety of the voting public, but of the vote itself. 

“For the safety of our election judges, the public, and of our democracy, we need a mail-in primary election.” Williams said. “Any time after June is too late.”

McCue said such a scenario would still require plans to minimize transmission risk, since more staff would be needed to place mail ballots in envelopes. The likely step toward mitigation, she continued, would be to make sure the county secures a large enough space to allow those workers to meet social-distancing recommendations. 

The specific impacts of the coronavirus on the 2020 primary in Montana remain uncertain. McCue and Seaman both said they’ll be communicating directly with the public via press release and social media as primary plans develop. Ultimately, one of McCue’s top priorities is to avoid a “chaotic election” in which polling personnel and voters are caught unprepared. She’s not alone.

“Maybe more than anything, I don’t want the election to go south, i.e., a low voter turnout,” Sillick said. “There’s just too much going on in the world right now where we need people to vote.” 

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...