Elections call for many people to gather in one place and people use voting booths one after anther to cast their ballots. When a communicable disease is spreading in the community though, how can citizen’s right to vote be upheld? That was the question for election officials throughout the country and here in Monroe County.
Monroe County Auditor Amanda Harlan, who also serves at the County Commissioner of Elections, had to implement numerous safety measures and new training in order to smoothly and safely hold several elections during the pandemic.
According to Harlan, in a typical year there are two elections in even numbered years and one in odd numbered years. Since the pandemic began though, five elections have actually been held.
Thy include the primary election on June 2, 2020, a special city election on July 7, 2020, the general election on Nov. 3, 2020, a special county election on Dec. 8, 2020 and a special Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont School election on March 3, 2021.
Harlan said that during a general election the county usually has seven polling places and voter traffic is much higher then during a special election or a city or school election which usually has lower voter turnout and fewer polling sites.
Usually polling sites are staffed from a standing list of volunteers who have worked previous elections.
“A typical election cycle for a precinct election official includes pre-election day education and training, a 16-hour election day shift and some post-election responsibilities depending on the assigned precinct,” said Harlan. “We are always looking for additions to our poll worker lists and always welcome new faces.”
In 2020 however, more then wanting new faces, they needed new volunteers. Many of the regular volunteers are elderly and with the COVID-19 pandemic hitting those over 65 worse than others Harlan said the whole state faced a shortage of election workers.
“The Secretary of State started an online recruiting campaign which was very successful for our county,” said Harlan. “We also made recruiting efforts internally with staff and existing precinct workers. Our community really responded to the call for help, and we ended up with nearly half of our precinct election officials as new recruits. This called for a more training than usual, but it was a very successful turnout overall.”
Harlan said the 2020 primary was the first election where staff had to implement changes due to the pandemic. The Secretary of State helped set guidelines, and get protective equipment and sanitizing supplies to counties. The Iowa Association of County Auditors was another resource Harlan used to get information. Harlan said Monroe County Public Health also helped train poll worker and inspect polling sites to help keep everyone safe.
Harlan said that she and her staff had a lot of inquires from the public about how to stay safe while voting.
“Once we had a chance to relay all the policy and procedural changes we were implementing, as well as review the various ways to vote, some of the concern appeared to be eased,” said Harlan.”
In the end, Harlan said turnout for the general election in Monroe County was up about six percent compared to 2016. They way people chose to vote change dramatically though with many more people voting early and by mail due to the pandemic.
“Absentee by mail increased by 74 percent in 2020 compared to 2016,” said Harlan. “Absentee in person increased by 25 percent in 2020 compared to 2016.”
Harlan has now held her first 2021 election during the pandemic and as the community looks forward to putting COVID-19 behind them Harlan said although it has been tough, her staff and the community helped her pull through.
“As it was in so many aspects of life this past year, it was a pretty trying year in elections,” said Harlan. “Fortunately, the community response to these election changes was generally positive and encouraging. My staff rose to the occasion, and we had a lot of help from some great poll workers and engaged voters. This past year reminded me that I am pretty lucky to live where I do.”