Discussions among elections officials continue as concerns of social distancing may impact polling sites.

BOONE — Opportunities for general election polling sites, absentee ballots and poll workers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were discussed during the May 13 Watauga Board of Elections virtual meeting.

Watauga County Board of Elections Director Matt Snyder said the elections office has brainstormed ideas for larger buildings in the county to host polling sites in order to follow social distancing guidelines. He said that the state elections board requested county offices to explore vacated grocery stores or commercial space that’s large enough to host one-stop voting while providing social distancing requirements. However, Snyder said the inventory of those spaces in Watauga is “light.”

Snyder said he spoke with Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott about the possibility of using the schools as polling sites on Election Day. According to Snyder, Elliott was not opposed to the idea but needed to run the idea by the Watauga County Board of Education. He also asked that the elections board alert the school system of a decision by early July.

“Unless anyone can think of large buildings that would meet the needs, the schools may be a backup plan,” Snyder said. “We’re trying to create backup plans. There’s so many variables we don’t know or can’t predict at this point.”

If the county were to use only the schools as polling sites, Snyder said the county board of elections would need to temporarily transfer voters into the precincts of those schools through a resolution. Precincts would need to be moved in entirety and could not be split, Snyder said. Each voter in those precincts would need to be notified of the change. He urged the board to start thinking about which precincts would go vote at which in the case that it is needed.

Board Chair Jane Ann Hodges gave examples of the Bald Mountain and Meat Camp precincts potentially voting at the Green Valley School and the Seven Devils precinct voting at Valle Crucis School.

Snyder added that he was unsure of what parameters the state will require for social distancing, such as a possible six-foot distance between voters. Board member Eric Eller mentioned that the N.C. court system has had talks of expanding its parameters to 10 feet.

The county elections office is also planning for those who may choose to not vote in-person and send in an absentee ballot by mail. Snyder said the discussion among other elections offices is that absentee by mail ballots could make up 40 percent of all ballots cast.

For instance, Snyder said if there’s 30,000 ballots, about 12,000 of them would be absentee by mail. The elections board members would then need to open, review and sign each one. Eller added that if the board took 30 seconds to review and sign each of the 12,000 ballots, that would take about 100 hours or around four full days.

To help with the possible influx of absentee votes, Snyder said the elections office may try to deploy a team during the day to review basic requirements on the envelope of the ballot, making it easier and quicker for the elections board to process the ballots.

“Absentee will be a big part of our year this year,” Snyder said.

Additionally, the elections office is also trying to plan for a potential reduction in poll workers. Snyder said spring elections around the nation experienced an 80 percent drop in those willing to be poll workers.

To plan for a potential decrease in community members serving as poll workers, Snyder said he also talked with Elliott about the potential of increasing the number of high school student assistants used at sites.

A recommendation to the N.C. legislature from the state elections director requested a change in statutes to allow more than one student assistant per precinct. If passed, Snyder said Watauga could potentially have two or three high school students serve at the precincts. Additionally, Snyder was hoping to capture 100 or so poll workers from the Appalachian State University community. Snyder said App State seemed like the most logical place to find poll worker replacements — if students aren’t back in town for school, then faculty and staff could be tapped for the job.

The Watauga office also hopes to start contacting the state retired employees union and the state retired teachers union to possibly secure poll workers that way. Snyder wants to recruit 200 people to be poll workers in hopes that at least 100 will be able to work.

“We don’t know how many people we’re going to lose between the time they sign on and Election Day,” Snyder said.

The board members stated that they would continue to have these discussions as Election Day grows closer.

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