Rural polling places to reopen for general election

After county hears outcry, commissioners unanimously restore polling locations

Posted 9/17/20

Traditional polling places in Clark, Garland, Heart Mountain, Wapiti, and on the South Fork — which were shuttered for last month’s primary election — will reopen for the Nov. 3 …

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Rural polling places to reopen for general election

After county hears outcry, commissioners unanimously restore polling locations


Traditional polling places in Clark, Garland, Heart Mountain, Wapiti, and on the South Fork — which were shuttered for last month’s primary election — will reopen for the Nov. 3 general election, Park County commissioners decided Tuesday.

Citing a desire for consistency and a shortage of election workers, Clerk Colleen Renner had recommended keeping the five rural polling sites closed and to only offer in-person voting in Cody, Powell and Meeteetse. However, after hearing from a roomful of unhappy voters who wanted the county to reopen the rural locations, commissioners unanimously opted to restore them.

Renner had announced in May that the five sites would be closed for both elections and she reaffirmed that decision at an Aug. 19 commission meeting. However, after reviewing a formal complaint from two voters, Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric concluded that Renner had misinterpreted the law and a state directive. Wyoming law says only county commissioners can move a polling place out of a precinct — and only if the change is “required by the public convenience.”

“To me, the statute is black and white clear that it has to be done for the convenience of the voters, to the public. And to me, it is clearly not,” Commissioner Lloyd Thiel said at Tuesday’s meeting, adding, “because it has nothing to do with the convenience of whether we can do it. … As a county we’ll figure out how to make it work.”

After hearing the complaints from the public, Commissioner Jake Fulkerson agreed it was a “pretty easy” decision to restore the rural polling places. However, he and other commissioners raised concerns about whether the county will have enough poll workers.

“I see the enthusiasm in this room, but it falls off rapidly when you leave, when you cross the street,” Fulkerson said. “So I challenge everybody to get election judges so we can maintain a quality election system.”

Multiple attendees pledged to work as election judges in November. Renner said in an interview that she’s had 52 voters volunteer since the primary, where she had 69 judges. That should put the county above the 109-judge threshold that Renner sees as the bare minimum for operating all nine polling places. However, the clerk would like more people to step forward; in typical years, Park County has had 170 or 180 judges, and Renner is concerned that judges could drop out at the last minute in this strange year.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” the clerk said at the tail end of the hour-long hearing, adding Wednesday that, “we’re going to make it work.”

Clark, Garland and Heart Mountain area voters — who cast their ballots in Powell in the primary — will be able to return to the Clark Pioneer Recreation Center, Garland Community Church of God and the Heart Mountain Clubhouse on Nov. 3. Meanwhile, Wapiti and South Fork residents — who voted in Cody last month — will be able to cast ballots at the Wapiti elementary school and South Fork fire hall, respectively. Operating those additional sites will likely cost the county $30,000 to $40,000, Renner estimated.

The clerk noted that voters can cast their ballots by mail via an absentee ballot or through early voting at the Park County Courthouse in Cody. Elections officials across the state emphasized those options amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of Renner’s concern in closing the rural polling sites was that it would be too difficult to practice social distancing.

“I did not ask for COVID; I’m just trying to do the best to keep everybody as safe as I can,” Renner said.

More voters cast absentee ballots in the primary election than ever before (55% of those who voted) and the overall turnout was the second-best in Park County’s history.

However, the roughly 40 people who packed into the basement of the courthouse on Tuesday stressed the value and importance of in-person voting.


Feeling disenfranchised

Bob Ferguson, a South Fork resident and vice chairman of the Park County Republican Party, said he was sure the clerk had no intent of disenfranchising any voters.

“But the fact of the matter is by closing voting places … that is exactly what’s happened,” he said.

Ferguson said absentee voting is not a replacement for voting in-person, saying he enjoys going to the polls and knowing his vote is counted. There are a lot of people who “don’t trust sticking your ballot in the post office and hoping it gets counted — particularly in this election year,” in which the major postal workers union has endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Ferguson added.

Park County Republican Party Chairman Martin Kimmet, meanwhile, spoke about how early voting runs the risk of missing out on information that comes out in the late stages of a campaign. He added that, “Voting is not only a right, but a duty and to make voting as easy as possible for everyone of age is incumbent on all of us to do that.”

Another Clark resident, Kristie Hoffert, suggested that many elderly residents in her community were effectively being disenfranchised. Beyond a potentially risky drive to Powell on bad roads, “it can be difficult for them to understand the deadline for absentee ballots or even the process,” Hoffert said. “They know one thing: They know the date of the election and they know that they can drive to the polling location and vote.”

She asked commissioners “to make sure that our voters are protected and that our communities are protected.”

Nicole Forsberg, who moved to Clark about a year ago, reiterated the concern about older residents driving in poor weather and added that her own job takes her around the region.

“For me to have the inconvenience to have to drive to Powell to vote versus stopping at my local voting booth in the morning or at the end of the day and being to go home at a reasonable time seems like my right as a voter,” Forsberg said.

Anthony Spiering, a Heart Mountain resident who lives “just down the road” from the clubhouse, similarly said that “it’s an inconvenience to drive all the way to Powell.”

Meanwhile, multiple speakers from Clark argued that having voters travel from their community to one consolidated and presumably more crowded polling place in Powell would increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19 rather than lessen it.

State Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, also called on the commission to reopen the sites.

“... This is our number one fundamental right at the government level,” Laursen said, “and stating the statute, it says that this needs to be for public convenience and not government convenience.”


‘If they can be staffed’

Before a single public comment was made, Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston said he supported reopening the polling places, “if they can be staffed.”

“What happens if we decide to restore the polling places and you don’t have enough judges?” Livingston asked. There was no good answer to that question on Tuesday, but those at the meeting pledged to do their best to help find judges.

Larry French of Powell said he recently spoke with four businessmen who are willing to let some of their employees have the day off to serve as election judges.

“If everybody in this room is willing to stand up and say, ‘Hey, this is important, let’s get judges,’ I think we can get enough numbers to take care of it,” French said.

“I believe our community can do it,” Livingston agreed.

In the 2018 primary, Renner had 176 election judges; last month, she wound up with 69 amid an aging pool of workers.

“There’s some issues with having enough numbers to back what we need and some extras — and they all have to be trained,” said Commissioner Dossie Overfield.

Election judges must receive about two hours worth of training — and they must be prepared to head to another polling place, say, driving from Powell to Meeteetse, if the need arises.

Two days before the primary, Overfield said the county had eight alternates lined up, but by Election Day, they were down to one. Then two people just didn’t show up.

“So there’s a lot of complications on this, whether it’s right or wrong … It’s not as simple as it sounds,” Overfield said.

Anyone interested in serving as an election judge is encouraged to call the Park County Elections Office at 307-754-8620 or visit the office at the courthouse in Cody.

Near the end of the hearing, Renner reminded the audience that, “it’s not just this election,” but those to come.

“Please reach out to your families, reach out to the younger generation, because those are the people that need to step up and start taking the place of us older generation,” she said, adding, “At some point they’re going to be where we’re at in our life and know how important it really is to go and vote at a poll and not vote on a phone — because that’s going to be the future also.”