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Local election officials ready for voters amid pandemic

Local election officials ready for voters amid pandemic

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While North Dakota's June primary election was conducted solely by mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic, voters in the Nov. 3 general election will have the option to vote in person. That has local election officials adapting to keep voters and poll workers safe.

The Burleigh County Commission in August reduced the number of polling locations from 27 to 15 because of the pandemic. Some new locations were chosen to keep large numbers of voters out of schools or because the size encourages social distancing.

All four rural precincts in the county will have polling centers open on Election Day.

County Election Manager Erika White said she is still looking for more election workers to staff polling locations because some veteran workers are older and at high risk for coronavirus.

"We've lost quite a few of our experienced election workers due to COVID-19," White said. "Their health and safety comes first."

Burleigh County plans on "heavily staffing" its polling centers so that if an election worker can't work, the location has adequate staff, White said. She added that she's been working with younger poll workers for this election.

The county is taking applications for workers until Oct. 19. Prospective workers must be at least 16 years old, a Burleigh County resident and a U.S. citizen. They must complete training before Election Day.

Every poll worker position for Morton County has been filled, and a few people are even on a waiting list, County Auditor Dawn Rhone said. Of the 105 poll workers, about half have never worked an election before.

New this year to counties around the state are electronic pollbooks that replace the previous paper versions counties used. Election workers will be able to scan a voter's driver's license and pull up information on a tablet. Rhone said the new system will prevent people from voting at the wrong location. If a voter is at the wrong precinct, he or she will be notified when checking in and told the correct polling site.

Morton County will have 12 polling sites, the same as in previous years, but officials did move some locations to larger venues to facilitate social distancing, including in Flasher, Almont and Glen Ullin. Voting booths also will be spaced farther apart.

Election workers in Morton County will be provided gloves and hand sanitizer, Rhone said. She has not purchased the supplies yet, so she did not know what the cost would be. Burleigh County ordered masks, face shields and sneeze guards to protect workers and voters. That personal protective equipment cost about $11,000, White said, and was funded via the federal CARES Act pandemic economic rescue package. Polling locations also will have hand sanitizer.

Voters who want to cast their ballots in person but avoid Election Day lines can vote early in both counties from Oct. 21 to Nov. 2. Early voting in Burleigh County is at the Bismarck Event Center from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.

Morton County early voting is at Disciples Church at 3001 Memorial Highway Suite B in Mandan from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Both locations are closed on Sundays.

A map of Burleigh County polling sites can be found at https://bit.ly/3n7zkgJ. A Morton County polling site map can be found at https://bit.ly/3jnSBrX.

Absentee ballots 

Counties began mailing out absentee ballots around Sept. 24. Burleigh County mailed 18,000 absentee ballots that day and another 5,000 the next. Morton County sent out 7,000 absentee ballots. Voters in both counties can mail them back or drop them off in person until Nov. 2 at the City/County Building drop box in Bismarck or at the Morton County Courthouse drop box in Mandan.

There is no deadline for requesting an absentee ballot in Burleigh County, though White recommends that voters apply by Oct. 16. It gets "trickier" to send out and return ballots after that date because of how close it is to Election Day, she said. Morton County will stop sending out absentee ballots on Oct. 30, but the ballots can be picked up in person until Nov. 2.

Absentee ballots for both counties must be postmarked by Nov. 2. Someone returning a ballot on that day should go to the post office and have the ballot stamped by hand or drop the ballot off in person, White said.

President Donald Trump in recent weeks has sparked a national debate on voting by mail by claiming the practice will lead to fraud, which elections experts have debunked. White said there is no widespread voter fraud in North Dakota and that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ranked the state No. 1 in election administration for the 2018 midterm election. MIT's Elections Performance Index ranked the state first in administration in 2018 and fifth in 2016. In 2018, the state had higher voter turnout and fewer absentee ballots rejected than the national average.

Voting by absentee ballot in North Dakota is "safe, secure and convenient," White said.

Signatures on both the absentee application and absentee ballot are checked to be sure they match, and poll workers check the birthdays of voters and addresses on their identification in person on Election Day.

Voters can check on the status of their absentee ballots at https://vip.sos.nd.gov/AbsenteeTracker.aspx. If someone tries to vote in person, they will not be given a ballot if records show an absentee ballot has already been returned.

Receiving an absentee ballot does not prevent someone from voting in person as long as he or she does not return the absentee ballot.

"If anyone receives a ballot and decides they'd rather vote in person, they can," Rhone said.

Election Day

Polling locations will be open on Nov. 3 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the general election. White encouraged voters to plan ahead if choosing to vote on Election Day.

"Do your research now," she said. "Do not wait until Election Day to figure out where you vote."

Voters can find their polling location at https://vote.nd.gov/WhereToVote.aspx.

Reach Sam Nelson at 701-250-8264 or sam.nelson@bismarcktribune.com.

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