The increasingly bitter tone of the national election and conflicts at polling places during the August primary has prompted an array of changes to safeguard the November general election.
For starters, some Payson polling places plan to impose much tougher general election restrictions on signs and campaigning on their property in the general election.
Moreover, Gila County elections officials are making plans to handle a heavy turnout on Election Day on top of mail-in ballots.
The pandemic imposes its own challenges, including finding enough volunteer poll workers and ensuring every voter wears a mask while voting — although the county will not provide those masks.
The electioneering at Payson polling places during the primary alarmed several churches and private property owners that serve as polling places.
State laws bar the harassment of voters and require candidates, volunteers and signs to get no closer than 75 feet from the door of the polling place. The owners of private property serving as polling places can also bar signs and politicking on the entire property. The Gila County Elections Department has pledged to support polling place owners who impose such a ban on the Nov. 3 Election Day.
“It’s definitely a safety issue,” said Eric Mariscal, Gila County’s director of elections.
He hopes people call his office or election officials on site to report intimidation or harassment on Election Day. Every polling place has a volunteer elections marshal to enforce the rules as well.
The Church of the Nazarene hosts a polling place, and Pastor Rich Richey plans to “put my foot down” and “not allow any political parties” on his church property for the general election.
During the primary in August, Richey didn’t think twice about allowing supporters for two local candidates to set up awnings and signs in his parking lot because all past elections have been quiet.
It surprised him how many people showed up to lobby the voters. Although he did not witness any aggressiveness at his location, he heard reports of conflicts at other polling places. Witnesses from other Payson polling locations said the volunteers pressed voters as they got out of their cars with a suggested slate of candidates. Other voters complained about sign placement.
Richey worries the harsh rhetoric of the national campaign will spill onto his property on Election Day. “I think it is going to be a blow up,” he said. So, he’s setting a firm boundary of no politicking on church property.
Expedition Church plans to follow suit.
“We made a decision there will be no campaigning on our property,” said Donovan Christian of Expedition Church.
He has offered his church as a polling place for the last six years. He’s never seen the conflict and intensity that played out during the primary election this year.
“It caught us by surprise,” he said.
Staff from the Mount Cross Lutheran Church also plan on asserting their private property rights.
Just like the other two churches, Christian and his church leadership “want people to be able to come park, vote and leave feeling safe — and that’s it.”
Mariscal said private property owners hosting polling places have every right to determine what happens on their property. “If they don’t want to have anyone (electioneering) on their private property, they have that right,” said Mariscal.
He defined electioneering as “verbally communicating” with voters on how to vote.
Mariscal feels blessed the churches even allow him to set up a polling location. He must organize and oversee 17 polling places and organize 118 people on election day.
Planning for a big election
Mariscal’s already working hard to ensure a smooth Election Day — with candidates already raising questions about vote counting, mail-in ballots, election security and other issues.
Just finding enough poll workers to spend a long day working with voters amid a pandemic poses one of the biggest challenges.
Poll workers typically spend a 13-hour day setting up then wrapping up voting.
“They have to arrive at 5 a.m. and they are usually there until 8 p.m.” said Mariscal.
Poll workers are “sworn in” to uphold the state and federal constitutions and all the laws regarding elections, said Mariscal.
The elections department must abide by a binder full of state laws for every election, which includes ensuring at least two people remain with the ballots at all times.
Each polling location has an inspector and a marshal volunteer from the county. The marshal makes sure the voting areas run in an orderly manner. The inspector “is basically the individual at the polling location in charge of the conduct,” said Mariscal.
Other poll workers verify a voter’s identity, address and voter registration information.