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Local election officials already seeing a rush

Mike Genet
The Examiner

For a couple weeks now, Corey Dillon says, the Jackson County Election Board has been receiving about 500 applications daily for absentee or mail-in ballots for the November election.

“It’s way above the norm,” said Dillon co-director of the Election Board, which deals with polling places in the county outside of Kansas City. “It’s bound to be more than the last presidential election, and it’s been going on for weeks and weeks.”

In the pandemic age, such a balloon in absentee applications is not a surprise. People who have contracted COVID-19 or are in a high-risk group have been added to those eligible to vote absentee. But mail-in voting is new to Missouri this year because of the pandemic, and any person is eligible for that.

Undoubtedly, absentee and mail-in balloting are similar, but particularly in Missouri there are differences voters should bear in mind in the weeks leading up to Nov. 3.

“Those are used interchangeably, so I think that’s what makes it a little bit confusing,” Dillon said. “The process and the requirements are different; the ballots are the same.”

“To vote absentee, there has to be a reason, and you have to disclose your reason.”

Of the seven authorized reasons to vote absentee, Dillon says the most common are being out of town on Election Day and being incapacitated or confined to home due to illness or disability. This year, being at-risk for COVID-19 has been added as a reason.

One can request an absentee ballot to be mailed to them – “You can even just write a letter requesting it,” Dillon said – or simply vote absentee in person at the Election Board’s absentee office, 110 N. Liberty St. on the Independence Square, just a block from the Election Board’s main office.

The first day to accept absentee or mail-in ballots is Sept. 22, and requested ballots will not be mailed until then. Absentee ballots can be mailed back to the Election Board (Jackson County Election Board, P.O. Box 296, Independence, MO 64051) or returned in person at the main office (215 N. Liberty St.).

Mail-in ballots can be requested in person or by mail, and when mail-in ballots are returned they must be notarized, unlike absentee ballots where you don’t need a notary for voting due to medical reasons. The state of Missouri has allowed mail-in ballots this year because of the pandemic.

Besides Sept. 22, the other key date for voters before the November election is Oct. 7 – the deadline to register for voting if needed. And someone who has moved recently into a different voting jurisdiction – from Kansas City to Blue Springs or even Independence, or vice versa – must re-register for voting in a different jurisdiction.

Dillon said the Election Board has received calls from people concerned about the recent drama with the U.S. Postal Service leading to slower service and mailed ballots possibly arriving too late to be counted. For voters, it might be a new worry this year; Dillon says they always fret about it.

“Honestly, it’s something we always worry about, people waiting too long to mail it back,” she said. “There’s nothing more heartbreaking than the day after the election, going to the post office and getting a stack of absentee ballots that we didn’t get in time.”

“We’re in constant communication with our post office in Independence, and we’ve worked out a pretty good plan for making sure we get every ballot that’s in the works, in the process, to be delivered to us by election day. But a lot of that depends on when those ballots get in the mail.”

Dillon said many of the Postal Service concerns could get figured out by Sept. 22, so until then the Election Board’s biggest task is educating voters between absentee and mail-in voting.

With so much absentee voting anticipated, Dillon said it’s hard to anticipate how high turnout will be at the polls even for a presidential election. But with some churches declining to be polling place hosts due to public health concerns, the Election Board is again securing some larger tax-funded facilities to host many voting precincts at once. No matter the Nov. 3 turnout, election officials feel confident they’ll be ready after handling two elections already during the pandemic.

“We kind of felt lucky to have the June election before the August election, which has a higher turnout, and then the August election before the November election,” Dillon said.

The big challenge going forward, she said, will be keeping up with the deluge of ballot applications and answering questions from voters.

“Here we are, it’s August 19th, and the phones are almost always full,” she said. “We have enough staff right now, and we’ll bring in part-time employees when we need them.

“Some jurisdictions have a third-party vendor that does their absentee ballots for them…but we do it in-house, so it’s going to be a lot of long days and long nights at the office.”

Breaking down voting concerns

Watch The Examiner’s entire conversation with Corey Dillon of the Jackson County Election Board on the newspaper’s Facebook page.