Election workers in Kootenai, Canyon test positive for COVID-19

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

One early voting site in Canyon County has had multiple workers test positive for COVID-19, and a positive test in Kootenai County’s office forced other election workers to quarantine.

Joe Decker, public information officer for Canyon County, said there are four confirmed positives among poll workers who worked at the O’Connor Field House early voting location in Caldwell. Other workers have declined to get tested, but have been sent home after showing symptoms.

As of midday Tuesday, more than 7,000 residents had voted early at O’Connor since the site opened Oct. 13.

Masks aren’t required among poll workers or voters at the O’Connor Field House, or any other voting location in Canyon County, Decker said. 

“We strongly encourage the poll workers and voters to wear masks. We provide masks for people who want them but don’t have them,” Decker said. However, without a mask mandate from the state, county, or local health district, “the clerk doesn’t feel he has the authority to require them.”

Social distancing is in place at the polling locations, Decker added, and every stylus and voting booth is sanitized between voters. 

But in the Canyon County ballot surveillance livestream, located at the county’s main office in Caldwell, most election workers weren’t wearing masks on Tuesday, and were sitting right next to each other throughout the day.

Chad Houck, Chief Deputy Secretary of State, said the Secretary of State’s office isn’t requiring masks at polling places, nor has it put together guidelines for counties.

“We left it at their discretion, recognizing that every county has got a different situation and different scenarios, so we didn’t want to implement any directives specifically,” Houck said Tuesday. “However, the governor’s already got guidance out there of what he feels is appropriate, and we would echo that.”

The Secretary of State’s office does keep track of COVID-related issues at county election offices as they’re made aware of them. As of Tuesday afternoon, Houck had heard only about issues in Kootenai County’s elections office. Last week, Houck flew up to Kootenai County to assist the clerk after a positive test and subsequent contact tracing forced a number of key staff members to quarantine. 

With overnight deep cleaning and help from Houck, early voting continued in Kootenai County without any disruptions, he said.

“We assisted them just in logistics, making sure they had (the polling place) cleaned, had it staffed, et cetera,” Houck said. 

The state is also preparing for some poll workers to be out of commission next week. On Tuesday, Susan Buxton, administrator for the Division of Human Resources for the State of Idaho, sent an e-mail to division and agency administrators asking state employees to volunteer as back-up “for poll workers that might be unable to report for duty on November 3, 2020.” The 40-50 volunteers would likely be sent outside of Ada and Canyon Counties, and may have to fly and stay overnight in a hotel, Buxton wrote. Those volunteers would need to take personal leave for the shifts. (Full disclosure: Idaho Public Television is a state agency.)

Anyone interested in becoming an emergency poll worker can sign up at idahovotes.gov; Emergency poll workers may be sent to any of Idaho’s 44 counties.

As of Tuesday afternoon, approximately 375,000 votes in Idaho have already been cast, the bulk through absentee voting, Houck said.

Updated 8:45 am Oct. 28 to clarify the location of Canyon County’s election office.

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