The residents of Clark, Wapiti, South Fork, Garland and the Heart Mountain area will get their polling places back. That was the decision made by the Park County commissioners at their meeting Tuesday.
On Aug. 19, the commissioners supported Park County Clerk Colleen Renner’s decision to close six polling locations for the Nov. 3 general election, but Bryan Skoric, Park County attorney, later determined this decision was illegal as state statute says the commissioners must make the decision themselves out of “public convenience.”
By not making a ruling on the matter Tuesday, the commissioners deferred to the status quo.
“I’m ready to close this,” Renner said.
At the meeting, she explained the motive for the closures came from social distancing concerns at the smaller polling locations and an inability to recruit election judges, who must undergo hours of training to become certified.
Leading up to election season, she said they mailed 249 letters to past judges asking for help, but only 85 responded, and of those, only 75 worked election day. In comparison, Park County had 176 judges for the 2018 primary elections. Renner did not mail letters to those 85-years or older, but the vast majority of judges she said, are over the age of 65.
Renner also said at the August meeting she wanted to reduce confusion for voters that could be caused by reverting back to the original locations.
Secretary of State Ed Buchanan had given Wyoming’s county clerks approval to close polling locations for the August primary in lieu of COVID-19 concerns, but never gave a direction on the general election.
Two days after the commissioner’s August decision and three months after the directive was released, Buchanan sent out formal notice that his department was not referring to the general election for poll site closures.
Still, Renner continued her desire to keep the polling places closed at Tuesday’s meeting. No commissioners expressed the same interest.
The issue of closing locations based on social distancing concerns appears to be a double-edged sword. A few constituents at the meeting complained that closing the rural polling locations caused large crowding at the larger polling sites on primary day, however a lack of judges and judges spaced too thin could theoretically cause the same problem at the smaller polling locales.
To avoid the latter problem, Joe Kelleher, vice president of the Clark Pioneer Recreation Center board, committed to having that entire facility available for voting – more space than was previously said available.
Renner implored Tuesday’s audience that more judges will be needed with all the polling places open. Commissioner Lee Livingston expressed confidence this will be achieved based on the turnout of more than 30 people for the weekday morning meeting.
A letter with the names of 35 residents attached expressing a commitment to serve as judges was already submitted to the clerk’s office, and Powell resident Larry French said he talked to four business owners who committed to giving their employees time off in order to judge.
Renner said it was not her intention to disenfranchise any voters and many in the audience agreed with her, although a few did say disenfranchisement occurred even if it wasn’t the intent.
Clark resident Kristie Hoffert expressed concern the absentee mailing process might confuse a senior citizen.
“I don’t want to see my community, and the elderly people of my community who have lived through on hell on Earth to get to the age they are now, disenfranchised as far as having to decide if they risk their safety to drive to Powell or they try to figure out how to vote in advance,” she said.
Voters can cast their ballot at the Park County courthouse starting Friday up until Nov. 2, but this was never mentioned during the meeting.
What was mentioned was the sense of joy and emotional reaction that many voters feel from casting their ballot in person.
“A lot of people enjoy having the opportunity to do that,” said South Fork resident Bob Ferguson, vice chairman of the Park County Republican Party.
Ferguson expressed the need for giving the opportunity to vote to as many people as possible and also criticized the reliability of mail-in voting because two major Postal Service labor unions have supported presidential candidate Joe Biden. Opening and altering a ballot is a felony.
Martin Kimmet, chairman of the Park County Republican Party, said he still makes voting decisions the week of the election, which eliminates mail-in voting as a viable option for him.
Discussion also took place regarding the minimum number of judges needed per polling place, which was determined to be three. Judges must be trained before participating, which state law says must happen at least four days before the election. If three cannot be found and no alternates exist, the clerk may appoint a member of the public, but nothing is mentioned in the law about what to do if this person has not been trained.
Renner said multiple times in the meeting judges will not be guaranteed the right to work in their individual community. Alternates are informed at 5 a.m. election day if their help is needed.
About $60,000 had been cut from the election department budget this fiscal year and Renner said she will now spend about $30,000-$40,000 out of reserves in order to operate the polling places. CARES Act funding cannot apply to these costs as it is only eligible for costs exceeding those of prior years.
There will be 10 polling places in the county.
The Park County Fairgrounds, which has hosted two different polling sites in the past, will still stay at one just as it was for the primary.
There were a few local politicians at the meeting including State Senate candidate Tim French (Powell), State Rep. Dan Laursen (Powell), and Nina Webber (Cody) who ran for state house as a Republican in the primary but lost.
Laursen expressed enthusiasm for judging, but was informed he would be ineligible because his name is on the ballot. Commissioner Jake Fulkerson, who lost in the Republican primary and won’t be on the general ballot, said he will be judging.
“I challenge everybody to get signed up to be election judges,” he said.