A look at early voter turnout, election concern in Wayne County

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More than 17,000 Wayne County voters used absentee voting and in-person absentee voting (early voting) to cast ballots by Friday in anticipation of Tuesday’s Election Day.

Those totals exceed the number of absentee/early voting ballots cast prior to Election Day in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.

In-person absentee voting, also known as early voting, concluded at noon Monday at the courthouse and on Saturday at the Kuhlman Center.

Eight vote centers were scheduled to be open on Election Day.
“I assume there will be long lines on Election Day,” Wayne County Clerk Debra Berry said last week.

In the weeks leading up to the election, the majority of the voters had cast their ballots at the courthouse, where early voting began Oct. 6.

The other early vote centers opened Oct. 24 or Oct. 26. As of Oct. 28, the Kuhlman Center had 3,098 ballots cast by Wednesday; First English Lutheran Church had 1,947; Hagerstown New Testament Church, 867; and Golay Center, 955.

For the spring primary election, Wayne County had about 41,000 registered voters. For this general election, the number of registered voters has increased to about 43,000.

To put that into perspective, here’s a look at Wayne County’s numbers from the last three presidential elections:
2016 — 43,365 registered voters; 26,389 cast ballots [16,414 absentee/early voting; 9,975 in person]
2012 — 44,963 registered voters; 26,225 cast ballots [15,445 absentee/early voting; 10,780 in person]
2008 — 51,800 registered voters; 29,085 cast ballots (Before vote centers and early voting were enabled.)

The Voter Registration Office had requests for about 4,000 mail-in absentee ballots and by Oct. 28, about 3,100 had been returned to the office, Berry said. To be counted, mail-in absentee ballots must have been postmarked by noon on Election Day, Nov. 3.

Berry said some absentee ballots were “spoiled,” in other words damaged or lost, and have been accounted for and replaced for the voter. Others that have been returned by mail to the Voter Registration Office have taken some detective work, including phone calls, emails and searches of other records, on the part of the staff to unite the ballot with the voter.

“You just have to work together. You have to try to find ways to contact them (the voter),” Berry said.
Richmond Postmaster Mark Thornburg has been “outstanding,” throughout the election process, Berry said. As various deadlines approached, Thornburg reached out to Berry and the Voter Registration Office to make sure they were getting what they needed. To help keep the voting office on track, Thornburg even delivered mail to the office on Columbus Day, despite the Post Office officially being closed for the holiday, Berry said.

What did early voters sign?/strong>
Those who took advantage of the early voting process might wonder why they signed a blank absentee ballot application.
The state requires each in-person absentee voter to have filed an absentee ballot application, and having the voter sign a blank application speeds the process, Berry said, because in-person absentee voters don’t have to take the time to fill out the application by hand. In Wayne County, the signed blank form is paired with a digital printout linking the voter registration and the cast ballot.
Berry said she wishes the state didn’t require an application for each in-person absentee voter because the cost of the forms quickly adds up.
Voters, whether they cast a ballot early or on Election Day, also must sign the electronic poll book. The electronic poll book gives the voter the opportunity to make sure they are getting the ballot intended for them.
“We want the voter to take some responsibility and look at what they’re signing,” Berry said.
For example, if John Smith Sr. is accidently offered the chance to sign in as John Smith Jr., it’s his responsibility to make sure he gets the ballot for John Smith Sr. Otherwise, John Smith Jr. might be denied because the records will show he already voted, even if it was the elder John Smith who signed, Berry said.
If a signature needs verification, the original voter registration card on file is used for comparison, Berry said.
Although there has been national publicity about some states allowing ballots cast early to be revised, in Indiana, the law makes no provision for a change.
“Once you’ve cast a ballot, you’re done,” Berry said. “You can’t go back.”
That is why she and poll workers have been encouraging voters using the electronic vote machines to review their ballot carefully before hitting the final ballot cast button. Until that button is hit, a voter can make as many changes as they want to their ballot.
The only way a ballot cast before Election Day can be changed is if the voter dies, in which case it is removed from the ballot pool.
Anyone who had moved still had the option to vote. They only needed to change their address at the poll or by using the state’s voter website.
The same is true for anyone who had changed their name, Berry said.
Anyone who moves or changes their name between now and the next election should make those changes known to Voter Registration or through the state website.

Election concern raised
With heavy interest in voting, the Wayne County Democratic Party and its chairwoman Beth Harrick released a statement last week about Wayne County’s election process and the actions of Berry, an incumbent Republican who was being challenged for the clerk’s seat by Democrat C. Yvonne Washington.
“As we see unprecedented numbers of Wayne County voters showing up early to exercise their right to vote, it’s critical to insure the integrity and safety of our election,” the statement said. “This is not happening. Therefore, the Wayne County Democratic Party wants to register our disappointment on the following:

“1) The County Clerk instructed Kuhlman Center poll workers to crowd voters into Kuhlman Center on Saturday, Oct. 24. Clerk Berry’s directive was in violation of the joint executive order limiting social gatherings to 75 persons, and, by eliminating social distancing options, she jeopardized the health and safety of those present.”

Berry responded by saying that when she learned that some people with physical challenges were standing in line outside the Kuhlman Center in the 40-degree weather, she made a request that voters be brought into the warmth to form a socially distanced line wrapping around the interior of the Kuhlman Center.
She admitted that in her concentration on overseeing the election she was initially unaware of the newly issued order to limit gatherings to 75 people. As soon as she was made aware, the situation was rectified, Berry said.

“2) The Early Vote Center in Hagerstown had delays in operations on Monday, Oct. 26. Voters were ready to vote at 10 a.m.; however, due to an error by the Clerk’s office, voting was delayed by 58 minutes. Some voters left without being able to cast their ballot,” the Democratic Party statement said.
Berry responded by saying that the in-person absentee ballot forms were inadvertently left out of the inspector’s bag and when the forms were discovered missing, efforts immediately began to have them delivered to the vote center.
Berry said the onsite inspector informed the waiting voters of the time it would take for the forms to arrive and offered them the opportunity to wait, leave and vote at another vote center such as Golay Center, or to leave and return another day.
The forms were delivered as soon as possible, Berry said, and voting progressed unhindered.

“3) The Wayne County Election Board held an emergency meeting to determine whether to extend the Hagerstown Early Vote Center on Oct. 26, 2020, to enable a full 9-hour shift,” the Democratic Party statement said. “Clerk Berry cast the only vote against the proposal, which blocked extension of Vote Center’s hours. At the meeting Clerk Berry stated, ‘They have all week to vote.’”
Berry responded, “On the first day (of early voting), I felt like to extend it (voting) one hour for that one polling place didn’t make a lot of sense because they had other options.”
If it had been the last day of voting or if all of the vote centers had been inoperable, Beery said would have favored leaving the polling center open for an extended period.
She also didn’t think that if voters had gone home in the morning that they would return between 7 and 8 p.m.
Berry said that the New Testament vote center had 12 voters in its final hour of 6 to 7 p.m. on the day of issue.

The Wayne County Democratic Party completed its statement by saying, “Just as we registered disappointment with Wayne County Clerk Berry’s inaccurate tallies following the November 2019 election, we again disagree with her poor decisions in early voting so far, decisions which have made voting far more difficult and more dangerous for Wayne County residents.”

By Rachel Sheeley

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