Voters don’t have to wear masks, but JoCO Election Office reminds poll workers they must

After hearing complaints from voters and some poll workers, the Johnson County Election Office last week confirmed it is requiring poll workers to wear masks. File photo.

With just a week before Election Day, the Johnson County Election Office is cracking down on mask requirements for poll workers.

During training sessions and work days for poll workers, it appeared as though the county’s mask mandate was not being enforced at some locations. After numerous complaints from voters and poll workers about some workers without face masks, the election office distributed information to poll workers stressing that they must comply with Johnson County’s mask mandate.

“Masks are required because we’re going to have… lots of people, and we want to protect all of our poll workers and our voters,” said Election Commissioner Connie Schmidt. “So our poll workers that are working out there are going to have to comply with the county’s mask mandate, just like all of us here at the election office are doing on a daily basis.”

Lori Sand, senior public information officer for Johnson County, said the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment has been working with the election office on COVID-19 safety measures. Sand echoed some of Schmidt’s comments about mask requirements for poll workers.

“They work for many hours in close proximity where physical distancing between other poll workers is not always possible,” Sand said. “If poll workers are exempt from the mask order we thank them for their service and suggest they come back for a future election after the mask mandate has expired.”

Here is a copy of the information on mask requirements as distributed to poll workers:

Schmidt said the election office understands if poll workers are unable to wear a mask all day, as many of them are older or have compromised health conditions.

“We’re encouraging some of them, if they feel like they can’t do that, or they have a health condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, that it’s OK to sit this election out, and we’ll be back with them again next year,” Schmidt said.

COVID-19 safety measures in place for poll workers, voters

Voters aren’t required to wear masks to go to the polls. Above, voters stand in line on Oct. 17 the first day of advance voting at Oak Park Mall. Photo courtesy Jae Moyer.

While poll workers in Johnson County are required to wear a mask, voters are not.

In a press release Oct. 19, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab said local election officials are directed to work with their county health department on mask requirements for poll workers. But election office staff may only encourage voters to follow COVID-19 safety recommendations from health professionals and provide mitigation measures such as physical distancing, sanitization of touchpoints and offering masks to voters without.

“Exercising one’s fundamental right to vote is not, and should not be, contingent upon whether or not they choose to wear a mask,” Schwab said. “Voter intimidation or suppression based on the use or non-use of a face mask, or for any other reason, will not be tolerated.”

Here are some of the COVID-19 safety measures, which Schmidt noted were already in place for the August primary election:

  • Encourage voters to do frequent handwashing, wear masks, stay at home if sick, physical distancing
  • Poll workers sanitize equipment between each use, distribute a single use pen/stylus, and have hand sanitizer available
  • Plexiglass barriers are in place during the check-in process when the voter and poll worker are in closest, longest contact
  • Signage is in place to remind people of the infection control protocol, and floor stickers are spaced 6 feet apart for physical distancing measures

Schmidt said poll workers are provided masks and gloves.

With physical distancing measures in place, the Johnson County Election Office has fewer voting machines in all of the locations, Schmidt said. Plus, the election office expects more than 200,000 voters to cast their ballot before Election Day. Schmidt advised voters to space themselves out by voting early in order to avoid crowds.

Poll worker alarmed by unmasked colleagues, voters

Some poll workers are alarmed that voters show up to the polls without a mask. But Kristen Fromm, a poll worker from Mission Hills, is more worried about her fellow workers who don’t comply with the mask mandate.

After multiple encounters with unmasked workers — including some wearing only a face shield and one who pulled his mask down to talk — during training and on Oct. 17, the first day of early voting at Hilltop, Fromm told Schmidt that she won’t return to work her shift until she feels safe.

“I got home that night and was just super mad at myself for staying, because I felt like I exposed myself to COVID unnecessarily,” Fromm said. “When you’re working side by side with someone for, like, 10 hours a day, and they’re not masked, that’s a huge COVID risk.”

Schmidt said she was grateful that Fromm contacted her “because it pushed the issue up a higher level for me.”

“Her concerns are most certainly valid concerns, and I’ve placed a high priority on them,” Schmidt said, noting that as a result of those concerns, the election pushed out the above statement late last week.

Chris Chancellor, a poll worker from Overland Park who’s working at Breakpoint Community Church, said he feels relatively safe at the polls.

“I think the Johnson County Election Office has really done a good job of providing election workers with PPE, masks, gloves, that we can use,” he said. “It keeps the voters safe, but it also keeps us safe as well.”

Jae Moyer, an Overland Park resident who uses they/them/their pronouns, didn’t notice any unmasked poll workers during the training sessions. However, Moyer was more concerned about voter safety if some people show up without a mask. They stood in the long lines to vote early at Oak Park Mall on Oct. 17, and noticed some voters wore no masks.

“People weren’t really social distancing at all,” Moyer said of the lines as they extended out the mall doors. “Some of the people weren’t even wearing masks while they were standing right behind someone else in line.”

Schmidt said the election office has trained more than 2,000 people to work at the polls, significantly more than in previous elections because younger people signed up to take the place of older residents with compromised health conditions. About 30-35 people participate in a training session.

“We’re very lucky and grateful that we have a large population of our voters that have stepped up to join the poll worker rank during COVID-19,” Schmidt said. “They’re heroes, they’re special people, and we’re going to do everything we can, I will personally, to protect each one of them and our voters on Election Day.”