Riley County will still hold in-person polling this election season, but officials encourage residents to vote by mail in anticipation of congestion.
Riley County Clerk Rich Vargo says he has no authority to run the 2020 primary and general elections entirely by mail amid public gathering concerns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the State of Kansas has not made any exceptions to the laws requiring them to open polling places. Even so, Vargo says the county will be “proactive” in sending out personalized vote by mail applications to all registered voters to encourage them to participate in the upcoming elections that way.
“They will all be pre-filled with that voter’s information, it costs us more to do that,” says Vargo. “All they have to do is sign both of those documents.”
Vargo says the information sent to voters will include vote by mail applications for both the primaries and the general, and emphasizes that both must be signed in order to receive mail-in ballots for both elections. After signing, Vargo says applicants can mail the forms back with postage paid by the county.
The applications will be sent to registered voters by mail on July 15, but Vargo says that residents can request applications after that date if they had moved and not received their application or just registered or re-registered to vote. He says if a registered voter has not received their application within a week or two of that date they should call the clerk’s office to request a new one be mailed.
“We’re going to those great lengths and spending more money than we typically would to highly encourage participation by mail.”
Vargo has been an advocate for voting by mail for years, but is pushing the issue harder due to anticipated issues recruiting poll workers. The county typically has 190 poll workers — 140 of whom are aged 60 and older — to staff 30 polling places (31 counting advance voting), but Vargo says they’ve already heard from 51 employees who cannot or will not work this election season.
Additionally some polling place venues have made it clear to Vargo the spaces are only tentatively available and that availability is subject to change, further complicating the situation and increasing the probability that some polling places will be consolidated or shut down this election cycle.
“Just as a matter of fact of having 50 less poll workers, we’re going to have a much lower staff at the polling places,” says Vargo. “Which if we don’t increase mail ballot elections significantly, that’ll just cause congestion at the polling places.
Vargo also anticipates more difficulty recruiting volunteers to assist in the process, though put out a call for people of all ages who feel comfortable working in this environment to reach out.
As for the polling places themselves, Vargo says they’re preparing for a different process than the norm. They’ve managed to acquire hand sanitizer in bulk and are working with Riley County EMS to attain gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment for staff. Not only that, but staff and volunteers will also be trained on extra cleanliness measures that will be in place that include cleaning voting machines and other equipment in between each voter.
“It’ll be a much more cumbersome process at the polling place if people decide to participate that way — the way it looks right now, anyway,” says Vargo. “I don’t forsee this clearing up magically by August 3rd, but if for some reason the restrictions can be lifted an made a lot easier then it would go a lot simpler — I don’t forsee that happening.”
Vargo further emphasizes the safety of voting by mail, saying that they take even more security precautions for mail-in ballots than they do in-person voting. He says to prevent the possibility of fraud, his office will only accept one ballot per person and Vargo’s staff has received signature verification training to match an individual’s on file signature with the one on their ballot. If they don’t match, they don’t count the vote — something not done during in-person voting, he says.
“And we’ll contact them and say hey, for some reason your signature doesn’t look quite right,” says Vargo. “Here’s a card, update your voter registration signature because […] my signature at the age of 30 will probably look different than it does when I’m 85 if I’m lucky enough to make it that long.”
“We do expect once someone votes by mail and realizes the convenience of that, they continue to participate that way,” says Vargo. “Voter participation is all about voter convenience, and if you make it that easy for individuals to participate you’ll see higher percentages of turnout.”
Vargo says voters will be informed of polling place changes by mail if the changes occur with enough time to notify voters that way. Otherwise, he says notification will be sent out via social media, the Manhattan Mercury and KMAN if a last-minute change is sprung upon the county.
The deadline for candidates to file is June 1 at noon. The deadline to register to vote in the primary election is July 14 with advance and by-mail voting beginning July 15. The deadline to register to vote in the general election is October 13 with advance and by-mail voting beginning October 14.
Follow this link for more information from the Riley County Clerk’s office.