CORONAVIRUS

Poll workers, most 60 or older, prepare to work Iowa's primary in the pandemic

Voter Vicki Shifflett of Hiawatha, Iowa, aska a question of poll worker Jo Ott at the Hiawatha Community Center in Hiawa
Voter Vicki Shifflett of Hiawatha, Iowa, aska a question of poll worker Jo Ott at the Hiawatha Community Center in Hiawatha, Iowa, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Poll workers arrive early to set up the polling booths, voting machine, and other all space in preparation for voting in the primary election. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Cedar Rapids — When polls opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday, every Linn County poll worker put on a medical face mask. Some snapped on latex gloves. Many are wearing county-provided face shields.

Iowa is holding its first major election since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. And while voters are responding in record numbers to calls statewide to vote by mail-in absentee ballot, voters still can cast ballots in person. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

In Linn County, election officials consolidated nearly 90 polling places into 19 sites and provided their poll workers — most of whom are 60 or older — with personal protective gear as they help residents vote in-person.

“I think that’s about all the front-line people have to fight this,” said Philip Koch, a precinct captain at the Education Leadership and Support Center, the headquarters for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. “So I’ll be as equipped as they are.”

Residents who vote in Tuesday’s closed primaries will decide the Democratic nominee to challenge Sen. Joni Ernst for the U.S. Senate; and the Republican nominees to take on U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer in the 1st Congressional District; and to challenge former state legislator Rita Hart for the 2nd Congressional District seat being vacated by Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack.

Besides contests for legislative seats, voters also will pick Democratic nominees for Johnson County sheriff and Linn County auditor. The general election is Nov. 3.

Requests for a absentee ballots before the May 22 deadline were higher than usual ahead of Election Day, according to the Linn County Auditor’s Office. More than 39,200 ballots were issued.

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But with combined precincts, Joie Welsh, a precinct captain at the Hiawatha Civic Center, said voting sites could still see high traffic.

“I think it’s important if someone wants to come in and vote, we should be there for them,” said Welsh, 68. “I always wear a mask when I go out, just for courtesy of the other people. I’m hoping they will wear it for courtesy of me, too. But I understand some people won’t wear them, and that’s their prerogative.”

Polling places will offer free face masks to voters. A greeter will wipe down voting stations after each use, and the pens used to fill in ballots will be used by only one voter each.

“There are a lot of precautions being taken, so I’m not worried,” she said.

Both Welsh and Koch — Democrat and Republican captains, respectively — have served as poll workers for several years. Linn County Deputy Commissioner of Elections Rebecca Stonawski said about half of the county’s regular poll workers were willing to work in the primary.

“We have gone to fewer polling locations — all in government buildings — in part to lessen the need for workers,” Stonawski said in an email, “but also to avoid going into day cares, schools and churches.”

Koch said he hopes voters who feel sick will take advantage of curbside voting, which will continue through Election Day at polling sites.

“Even if somebody is sick or looks sick we still have to allow them to vote,” Koch, 69, said. “With the protection equipment, I’m not really too concerned. If we do have somebody that’s sick, I’ll encourage them to do curbside, as opposed to coming in where everyone else is, but it’s their choice.”

Voters seeking curbside voting at their precincts should first call (319) 892-5300.

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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