Voting in a pandemic presents unique challenges for county election officials who anticipate cost increases, especially in postage expenses, as many voters turn to mailed-in absentee ballots for Indiana's June 2 primary.
The Allen County Election Board estimates it received about 38,000 applications for absentee ballots, Beth Dlug, the county's director of elections, said Friday.
About 2,800 people requested ballots during the 2016 presidential primary, Dlug said. The deadline to request an absentee ballot was 11:59 p.m. Thursday.
More than 20,000 ballots have been returned to the Election Board; the deadline for their return to local election boards is noon on Election Day.
That has meant a drastic increase in the cost to run the election in Allen County, Dlug said.
“We have already gone through our year's budget for postage and so we're moving funds around from one line-item to the other,” she said. “This election will be overall much more expensive than an election that would be mainly electronic.”
The Election Board spent $54,250 on postage through the end of April, Dlug said. The Election Board's postage budget for all of 2020 was $30,000.
Dlug said she won't know the total cost of the June 2 primary for some time. However, she noted that in the past, each absentee ballot cost the Election Board about $4.50. Electronic ballots, cast at a machine during early voting or on Election Day, cost less than $1.50 each.
“We're just in the process of doing what we have to do and then probably more toward the end of June we'll put a pencil to how much more this actually did cost us and if there are any more efficiencies that we can put in,” Dlug said.
Both Whitley and Huntington counties have seen drastic increases in the number of mailed ballots requested this election cycle as well, officials told The Journal Gazette last week.
About 3,200 absentee ballots were sent to Huntington County residents, said Yvette Runkie, voter registration deputy. About 2,100 of those have been returned, she said.
Huntington County sent out just 400 absentee ballots during the last presidential primary.
“The cost is unbelievable, the amount of postage we went through,” Runkie said. “But one plus to this virus in our office is our courts are closed, so I have utilized a lot of staff to help do the busywork and break down ballots and put them together and stamp the envelopes. It's been a great team to work with.”
Runkie said she's not sure what the total cost of postage will be for Huntington County this cycle. However, she noted the current level of absentee ballots was an “expense that was not budgeted for at all.”
Whitley County received 2,300 applications for absentee ballots for next month's primary, said Sarah Mayer, election deputy. Only 239 Whitley County residents received absentee ballots during the 2016 primary, she added.
Although election officials aren't sure exactly how much more the June primary will cost compared with previous elections, most said they will likely have to ask for additional funding to make it through the November general election.
“We will probably be coming back to (the County Council) this summer to get some more funds for the fall,” Dlug said. “It's something we're going to have to play by ear and see how things are going. Hopefully things will be much better on the health front and we can go back to a more normal election.”
But in the short-term, county election officials had to come up with a way to count the influx of absentee ballots on Election Day, while maintaining social distancing. For Allen County, that likely means several days of counting, Dlug said.
There will be about 35 teams of two, consisting of one Democrat and one Republican, counting absentee ballots at Memorial Coliseum, starting June 3.
Those teams will open every mailed ballot and review them, before sending them to a separate team for processing. Early voting machines and Election Day machines will still be counted June 2.
“It's going to be interesting because usually, (the teams) are side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder looking at ballots together,” Dlug said. “This will be a little bit different process. We're having them at tables six feet apart. It's going to take a little longer because they can't look at it together.”
It's similar in Whitley and Huntington counties. Six to eight teams of two will start opening Huntington County's absentee ballots around 8 a.m. on Election Day, Runkie said.
“Hopefully, if the teams work well together, they can have those absentee cards ready to run through as soon as the polls close,” she said. “We can start running them through prior to that if we have them done.”
Runkie noted that election officials can't tally a precinct until every absentee voter card is accounted for.
In Whitley County, there will be four teams of two counting those ballots, Mayer said.
In a typical election year, Whitley County absentee ballots are opened around 1 p.m., but this year officials moved that up to 10 a.m. so those votes can be recorded by 6 p.m., she said.
Despite a statewide push encouraging voters to take advantage of absentee ballots, in-person early and Election Day voting is still available.
Early voting begins Tuesday.
Allen and Whitley counties are offering one location for early voters.
In Allen County, that's at Grand Wayne Center in Fort Wayne.
For Whitley County, early voting will be available at the Whitley County Courthouse in Columbia City.
According to the Huntington County website, voters can cast ballots early in the rotunda at the county courthouse, the Cottage Event Center in Roanoke, Andrews Town Hall in Andrews, Indiana and Riverview Middle School in Huntington.
On Election Day, Allen County voters can cast ballots in-person at 25 polling places. Huntington County will have six vote centers available on Election Day and Whitley County voters will be able to vote in-person at one of 16 locations.
“We didn't combine any, because we didn't want to confuse voters,” Mayer said. “We're just taking precautions.”
Election Day voters in Allen County will receive a glove to wear to sign in on the poll tablets and voting machines and hand sanitizer will be available. Voting lines will be socially distanced.
The same is true for Whitley County, Mayer said.
Poll workers will only allow 10 people in a room at a time and everyone in line will be stationed six feet apart. Hand sanitizer and finger cots – small protective coverings that go over a person's finger – will be provided for voters, so they don't have to touch the machines, which will be sanitized with disinfectant wipes, Mayer said.
The state has also provided Whitley County with sneeze guards for the desk where voters check in on arrival.
Huntington County has purchased various personal protective equipment to help protect poll workers and voters, Runkie said. Election officials knew in early March the virus was coming, she said, adding that the county was proactive in buying equipment in addition to what the state has provided.
“I feel like our poll workers will be very protected,” Runkie said.
At a glance
• Voters looking for more information regarding early voting and Election Day polling locations can contact their local election board or go to www.in.gov/sos/elections.
• In Allen County, voters can go to www.allencountyvoters.info or call 260-449-7329.