Athens County Officials Prepare For ‘Election Like No Other’

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — In the runup to the November election in 2016, about 45 Athens County voters requested absentee ballots.

So far this year, that number is more than 7,000.

In case you’re wondering about the math, that’s more than a 15,000 percent increase in absentee ballot requests.

This of course is due to the global coronavirus pandemic. And it’s just one of the ways in which the pandemic has local election officials thinking about things they’ve never had to think about before.

“I have to say I think this whole election is going to be a challenge, every aspect of it,” said Debbie Quivey, who heads up the Athens County elections office. “We think this is going to be an election like no other we’ve ever seen.”

Absentee voters can drop off their election ballots in this box on Court Street in uptown Athens.
Absentee voters can drop off their election ballots in this collection box in front of the county courthouse in uptown Athens until 7:30 p.m. on Election Day.

One of the biggest challenges for Quivey and her staff this year is making sure in-person voting is done safely.

Her office is taking several steps to comply with the recommendations from health experts. This includes offering something that restaurants and stores have been doing for months: curbside service.

Quivey said voters will be required to wear a mask to enter a polling location. Voters who do not want to wear a mask because of a medical condition or some other reason can vote curbside. Two poll workers, one Democrat and one Republican, will bring the ballot to them.

Poll workers will all wear masks and clean polling equipment with sanitizing wipes, Quivey said. Each polling location will have a hand sanitizer station at the entrance operated by a foot pump. And each voter will be provided with a disposable stylus-pen combination to sign in and fill out their ballot.

Signage outside each polling place will remind voters standing in line to keep their masks on and maintain six feet of social distancing.

Given the simmering political tensions over mask wearing and the entire election process this year, Quivey has worked out a plan with the sheriff’s office in case things get out of hand.

“With the way things are kind of going in our nation right now, we have to be concerned about protesters, peaceful or not,” Quivey said. “Let’s say we get somebody that says, ‘I’m not wearing that mask. I’m voting and you’re not going to tell me.’ … If we get someone like that, we’ll give them one courtesy warning, and if the person does not comply we’ve got our sheriff’s department to back us up.”

Some Athens County residents will be going to a different location to vote in November, again courtesy of the coronavirus.

“We had to reevaluate every polling location and stop and take into consideration the safety of the voters,” Quivey said.

The Ohio University Innovation Center on West State Street is not available for use as a polling station. Residents who used to vote there will instead cast their ballots at 510 W. Union Street, Suite 102, which is the office of OhioMeansJobs, or at the Athens Public Library. The location depends on the voting precinct.

The First Presbyterian Church on Court Street in uptown Athens and St. Mary of the Hill Catholic Church in Buchtel do not meet social distancing guidelines, Quivey said. Residents who used to vote at First Presbyterian will instead go to Ohio University’s Baker Center. Quivey is working on an alternate location for Buchtel.

Voters whose polling locations have changed will receive a notification card in the mail soon, Quivey said.

The huge increase in the number of residents planning to vote absentee could result in some delay getting the numbers out on election night. Ballots received by 7:30 p.m. on Election Day, either by mail or through a ballot drop box, must be counted before numbers can be released.

Quivey encourages absentee voters to either mail in or drop off their ballots as soon as possible. She said her office will be caught up with processing any ballots received before the polls open Nov. 3. But she and her staff are prepared for the possibility of a last-minute surge in ballots on Election Day.

“People are going to have to be patient on waiting for totals that night,” she said. “Everybody gets in a big hurry, bam bam bam, let’s get those numbers out. Hey, we’re going to take our time, we’re going to do this right.”

Quivey also cautions that the first round of numbers released will not be the final official count. Her office must count all absentee ballots that are postmarked by the day before Election Day, which may not arrive until one or more days after the election.

The days after the election will also be spent dealing with provisional ballots, which are cast by residents who for one reason or another did not show up on the official voter rolls. One of the most common reasons is because they moved and did not register to vote again at their new address.

Each provisional ballot must be checked to make sure the voter is registered in Ohio and has not already voted somewhere else. Provisional ballots that check out become part of the final vote total released Nov. 23.

“I’ve had so many phone calls saying you don’t count those unless the race is close,” Quivey said of the provisional ballots. “That is absolutely not true.”