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Holding an election during COVID-19 situation

‘A lot of them brought their own cleaning products and sanitizer.’

Cleaning products were on hand at polling places across Ogle County on election day Tuesday as most buildings are closed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Cleaning products were on hand at polling places across Ogle County on election day Tuesday as most buildings are closed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Election worker Carol Wig was doing her part last week at the polls, but it wasn’t checking voters in or counting ballots.

Instead, after each vote was cast at Oregon’s Nash Recreation Center, Wig would approach the booth and wipe it down with disinfectant.

The elections went on March 17 despite much of Ogle County and abroad being closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Schools, restaurants, bars, libraries, parks and other establishments were closed and on March 20 a shelter in place was issued by Governor JB Pritzker to limit activities to just those deemed “essential” like shopping for food.

All the measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus yielded a lower turnout than expected in Ogle County, according to Ogle County Clerk Laura Cook. 

“I was expecting 40-45 percent turnout,” Cook said. “But it was more like 30 percent turnout. At the last primary election we did, it was about 50 percent turnout.”

Cook said logistically, the election went “really well.” Election judges were given direction by the Ogle County Health Department on social distancing, disinfecting surfaces and using hand sanitizer. A lot of the hard stuff was just normal election stuff, Cook said. 

When state and federal officials first started to call for closures the weekend before the election, Cook said she never considered that the election would be postponed or that polling places would close. 

One polling place did alter one location after the Oregon Park District decided to limit voting operations to just the lobby of Nash Recreation Center. Election judges lined the outside of the room while four voting booths were in the center of it. 

“Normally Nash is in a bigger room,” Cook said. “But that was all they offered us. It was too late to move it to a new location. We actually went there because I was worried about it too and they weren’t complaining.”

Moving a polling place at the last minute is a daunting task, Cook said. First a new location that’s large enough must be found. Then all voters in the precinct must be notified. The voters assigned to vote at Nash numbered in 1,000-1,500, Cook said. 

“I think if we would have had 5-6 days, we could have done that,” she said. 

Cleaning products at polling places were provided by the county. The only problem with supplying them was finding them in stock at stores.

County staffers bought out every cleaning product at the Dollar General in Rochelle, Cook said. Election judges and voters had to improvise in some cases.

“A lot of them brought their own cleaning products and sanitizer,” she said. 

Many election judges are elderly. That’s a demographic that health officials say is more susceptible to COVID-19. Between call offs and no shows, Cook estimates about 25-30 election judges did not participate in the election. 

Some polling places had to run with two election judges. One judge ended up being by herself. Others were moved around to help out those that were short-handed. The election being smaller in terms of turnout was handy in terms of manpower on hand to service voters, Cook said.

“But if things continue like this or if this happened during a presidential election, it’s going to be a lot tougher,” Cook said.

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