Tim Baker

Franklin County Clerk Tim Baker says voting procedures and polling places will have a different look for the indefinite future.

In March, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson moved the April 7 municipal elections to June 2 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which at that time was just beginning to ramp up across the state and in Franklin County.

Now, as the state prepares to reopen on May 4, questions still swirl regarding a second wave of cases and if residents will venture out of exile even if they are allowed to.

In the midst of the crisis, many groups have called for mail-in voting to compensate for shelter-in-place orders, restrictions on public gatherings, or just public contact in general.

Baker says there will not be mail-in voting in Franklin County and his staff is doing everything in its power to make voting safe for residents.

“I am 100 percent in favor of paper ballot, go to the ballot box to vote,” Baker said. “I think people personally take pride in casting their ballots. It’s like getting their driver’s license for the first time.”

Baker did relent somewhat by saying he is in favor of the no excuse absentee ballots.

“I’ve said 1,000 times it’s important to go out and physically place that ballot.” Baker said. “But, if someone is willing to come into my office and cast an absentee ballot, who am I to question their reasons.”

Franklin County successfully held a mail-in election last fall, which Baker deemed a success, but voter response was low even though it was a very specific group of residents affected.

Residents in the small sewer district near Catawissa voted on a tax levy increase strictly by mail to address the pressing need for repairs on the sewer system’s lagoons that couldn’t be put on hold until April 7. 

Baker said of the 134 ballots mailed out, 60 were returned and the tax increase passed by a 52 to 8 margin and needed only a simple majority to pass.

“The voter turnout was 44.7 percent,” Baker said. “We were able to do the mail-in election for just under $800 instead of it costing the sewer district almost $3,000.”

In that case, the mail-in election saved the county and the sewer district money, but Baker says that would not be the case on a larger scale.

Added Costs

In addition to being against mail-in voting on principal, the clerk explained the added costs to the county would more than double that of a normal election.

“A regular election usually costs the county between $170,000 and $180,000,” Baker said. The cost just to mail all of the ballots out would increase it to between $225,000 and $250,000. Add to that staff costs and it would easily be a $400,000 to $500,000 election.”

Safety Precautions

Even if most restrictions are expected to be lifted by June 2, it is unclear if residents will come out to vote, especially in a historically low turnout yearly election.

“This really isn’t the election to make that determination,” Baker said. “We will know more about turnout in the August and November elections, but I really can’t predict that far out.” 

Since 2014, voter turnout in April elections have averaged 16.8 percent. The highest turnout was 2016 when 14,675 ballots were cast and the lowest turnout on election day was 2014 when only 8,855 people voted.

In an effort to reassure voters of their safety June 2, all 42 county polling places will be open and all staff will be wearing gloves and masks.

Last week the clerk’s office began seeking bids for plastic barriers to be installed between voters and the election judges and once in place they will be a permanent fixture.

“The best way to describe them are like a sneeze guard at a buffet,” Baker said. “This is not going to be a one-time thing, use them once and throw them away.”

Hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes are being provided for voters and staff as another line of precautions.

Baker added a meeting was held recently with election judges to update them on the new procedures and they all seemed receptive.