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Virus concerns mean trouble for county officials searching for election workers

"I can't really blame them," the Cass County election coordinator said of longtime election judges who aren't working this year due to the pandemic.

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Carol Jacobsen, left, and Darrel Lund check ballots on June 8, 2020, at the Ramada by Wyndham in Fargo. Cass County will be doing a combination of early voting and mail-in voting for the Nov. 3, 2020, general election. Forum file photo

FARGO — Fear of COVID-19 is making it difficult for county auditors across North Dakota to find people willing to work election jobs leading up to and on Election Day, Nov. 3.

Cass County is no exception, according to DeAnn Buckhouse, election coordinator for the county.

"We still have a number of election judge positions we're having a hard time filling. It's not just Election Day, because we're running early voting in Cass County I need people who can work a week and a half," said Buckhouse, adding that the first three early voting polling sites will open Oct. 19.

The first three early voting sites to open will be at the Fargodome, 1800 N. University Drive, Fargo; the Ramada by Wyndham, 3333 13th Ave. S., Fargo and the Doubletree by Hilton, 825 E. Beaton Drive, West Fargo.

Three more early voting sites will open starting Oct. 26, including the Civic Center in downtown Fargo; the Hilton Garden Inn, 4351 17th Ave. S., Fargo, and the Days Inn by Wyndham in Casselton.

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Buckhouse said staffing for the first three early voting sites is close to set, but the county is still looking for election workers to fully staff the three early voting sites that open Oct. 26, particularly in Casselton.

She said election judges that traditionally show up for the job are holding back this year.

"There's a reason for that, they don't want to take the chance on being out there with COVID, especially with the numbers rising," Buckhouse said.

When prospective election workers call, Buckhouse said county officials do their best to put concerns at ease.

"We're taking every precaution," she said. "We've got masks, we've got gloves, we've got face shields, we've got sneeze guards. We're doing as much as we can."

The pay for a Cass County election worker position is $13.66 an hour.

Anyone interested can call Buckhouse, or Jodi Miller at the county finance office at 701-241-5600, or email to: election@casscountynd.gov .

In addition to Cass County, nine other North Dakota counties are offering early voting this fall.

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Because of pandemic concerns, there will be a 50% drop in the number of polling sites open on Election Day statewide, with 112 sites open Nov. 3, compared to 216 sites in 2018.

Even so, auditors statewide are having trouble finding enough poll workers, according to Donnell Preskey Hushka, executive director for the North Dakota County Auditors Association.

Absentee voting may ease some of the crunch at polling sites and Hushka estimates 50% to 60% of North Dakota voters will vote using absentee ballots in the general election.

Both Dunn County and McKenzie County in North Dakota shifted towards mostly vote-by-mail elections in 2018 and have kept similar systems in place during the pandemic.

McKenzie County Auditor Erica Johnsrud said the county will have three precincts offering in-person voting on Nov. 3. McKenzie County will not offer in-person early voting.

Johnsrud said McKenzie County's election positions are fully staffed right now, predominantly with first-time, younger poll workers, since older and more established election workers have mostly opted out this year.

"We've actually increased the number (of election workers) over previous years," said Johnsrud, noting that the county bumped up its poll worker hires in hopes of getting voters through the election lines more efficiently.

Dunn County plans to have voting sites open in two precincts on Election Day — one in Twin Buttes and one in Manning — down from the eight offered before the 2018 midterm election.

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Early voting is now underway at the Dunn County courthouse in Manning and it will continue until the day before Election Day.

There are also ballot drop-off locations at the Halliday City Hall and the Killdeer auditor's office, with 24-hour drop-off in Halliday and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. drop-off in Killdeer.

"We haven't had any trouble getting staff," said Dunn County Auditor Tracey Dolezal, who added that the county requires only a relatively small group to staff its voting sites. Five officials will work the voting location in Twin Buttes and six will work the location in Manning.

Ward County will have five in-person voting locations open on Election Day and seven no-cost drop-boxes available around the county.

Of the Ward County precincts with poll sites open on Nov. 3, one will be in Minot and the rest will be in rural areas of the county.

Ward County will have one in-person early voting site and that will be in Minot. It will operate for about a week before Election Day.

Marissa Haman, auditor in Ward County, said she hasn't had much trouble filling election jobs. "It was a little slow going at first, but there's actually been quite a lot of interest," she said.

Haman added that poll workers are a mix of age groups.

Buckhouse said in Cass County she has staffing figured out for the three early voting sites that open on Monday, Oct. 19, but she is still working on getting up to full staff for the three sites that will open starting Oct. 26.

"There's a few spots where we'll just have to get by," she said, adding that in some cases they may have to go with perhaps eight judges instead of the ten they hoped to find.

Buckhouse said there are election judges with whom she has worked for 14 years who say this year they don't feel they can take the risk posed by COVID-19.

"And I can't really blame them," she added. "It's got to be a personal choice. Some have high-risk family members at home. It could be very detrimental."

Moorhead City Clerk Christina Rust said she has already filled all of the election jobs necessary to operate all of Clay County's election sites on Nov. 3.

"Surprisingly, people have really stepped up for this election," Rust said, adding that one thing that has helped is strong student involvement.

"We have been very fortunate this time around," Rust said, referring to election workers, who will primarily be working on Election Day, as Minnesota does not have early voting when it comes to in-person voting.

"We're set, basically, and we have enough (workers)," Rust said.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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