By CAROLINE BECK and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - With the November general election looming, Alabama officials are looking at last week's primary runoff for insights on how to safely run polling sites amid predicted larger voter turnout in what is likely to still be a health emergency.
Secretary of State John Merrill said Monday the state has extended special rules allowing anyone with concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak to cast their vote absentee. At least 32,563 voters cast absentee ballots on July 14, amounting to a record breaking 5.2% of all votes cast.
Merrill said he expects the state to set another record in November for absentee voting.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see 100,000 people voting absentee," Merrill told Alabama Daily News. "People will be encouraged to vote absentee. We will do a multimedia campaign like we did before, and so I expect more people to vote absentee than ever before in the history of the state."
Concerns about the coronavirus appear not to have prevented Alabamians from turning out to vote in last Tuesday's runoff, at least relative to comparable elections.
According to Merrill’s office, more than 626,551 Alabamians cast a vote on Tuesday, which equates to 17.3% of the state’s registered voters. In the September 2017 special GOP runoff election for U.S. Senate, 14.6% of voters cast ballots. During the 2010 primary runoff when candidates for governor, attorney general and several legislative seats were on the ballot, 22.9% of voters turned out, according to data from Merrill’s office.
Merrill said the state's preparations for the unusual circumstances of last week's runoff paid off.
"It was just making sure everybody knew what to do, where to go, how to interact with other people and do the things that are required that are a little unusual," he said. "People being asked to wear masks, welcoming folks but not allowing them to loiter; we didn't have any [incidents], which is good because this is not the time for that."
Merrill also said the state will be providing electronic poll books to all counties in time for November's elections. Right now, only 32 counties have the electronic poll books that speed up voting and allow for minimal person-to-person contact.
Multiple probate judges told Alabama Daily News some of their regular poll workers declined to work last Tuesday because of outbreak concerns, but they were able to fill gaps with alternate workers or make do with less. Like Merrill, the probate judges said there were lessons as they prepare for November.
“We knew the turnout would be low so we went a few poll workers light in certain places and it worked perfectly fine for the runoff, but the number of poll workers we had for the runoff will not cut it for November,” Lauderdale County Probate Judge Will Motlow said.
Alabama had 13,171 poll workers for Tuesday’s election with 554 of them being new or first-time poll workers, according to data provided by Merrill’s office. No probate judge reported to the state any problems in obtaining enough poll workers for Tuesday’s election.
Many poll workers in Alabama are retirees who fall within the at-risk category COVID-19. Only 42 student-intern poll workers took part last Tuesday.
Jefferson County Probate Judge James Naftel oversaw around 2,000 poll workers on Tuesday, the largest amount in the state, and said they never ran out of any personal protection equipment or sanitizing supplies. He will meet in the coming weeks with other election officials to debrief on last Tuesday and identify how they can improve before the November election.
Naftel doesn’t foresee a problem with recruiting enough poll workers, but wants to make sure that all workers are properly trained and aware of the risks.
“I think the key will be making sure that people know what the expectations are for working,” Neftel told ADN. “Making sure the people know what are the conditions they will be asked to work under and no one is volunteering for something that isn’t what they signed up for.”
Motlow said as November approaches, if it looks like the county won’t have enough poll workers he will consider reaching out to the public. If case numbers for COVID-19 continue to get worse in Alabama, Motlow is hoping that the state will pass down further guidance on how to safely conduct the November election.
“If they have any good ideas, I’m certainly willing to listen,” Motlow said.
Probate Judge Frank Barger in Madison County said he expects all of the same sanitation procedures and PPE will be utilized in November, but he plans on evaluating polling station sizes and layout in preparation for the bigger crowds.
“We will look at space, we will look at how we will manage larger crowds, and really right now it’s more of a logistics concern in working through all of those items as opposed to PPE,” Barger told ADN.
The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a lower court ruling allowing curbside voting in Alabama and waiving some absentee ballot requirement during the pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Abdul K. Kallon had said last month that Alabama’s election rules put sick or elderly voters at risk for COIVD-19 for simply exercising their fundamental right to vote and should instead safeguard those vulnerable citizens
State law requires voters to submit photocopies of their photo identification as well as sign the absentee ballot before a notary or two witnesses.
Judge Motlow said he understands why some would rather not come out to vote in-person or older poll workers would rather stay at home, but those who do come out have been mostly respectful of everyone’s safety and constitutional right to vote.
“There is no way to eliminate the risk completely, so we just try to do what we could and if nothing else, make sure the voters and poll workers feel as comfortable as possible while they’re out there,” Motlow said.