Jason Dixon

Bannock County Clerk Jason Dixon poses for a photo at the Bannock County Elections Office on election night this past March.

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Voters in Bannock County who are uncomfortable interacting with unmasked poll workers or election officials have less than three weeks to submit their absentee ballots to the county elections office.

For those planning to cast their ballots in person, Bannock County Clerk Jason Dixon has implemented what he described as a “personal choice” face-covering policy for the Bannock County Elections Office and polling locations for the upcoming Nov. 3 general election, which does not require, but instead affords both election workers and the general public the choice of wearing a cloth face-covering, Dixon told the Idaho State Journal during a Wednesday phone interview.

“We realize this is a touchy subject so we wanted to provide people with options,” Dixon said. “I feel like we have social distancing measures in place and I am an advocate of the idea that if you cannot social distance, then wear a mask. Also, I believe that if you are within 6 feet of another person for longer than 15 minutes you should wear a mask. I feel like we have to get back to people having the personal choice, so long as we are being safe.”

Several Bannock County residents have contacted the Journal this week to voice their concerns over Dixon’s decision to not require voters, poll workers or election officials to wear masks during the upcoming election.

Pocatello resident Laurel Pumphrey, who has previously volunteered to help ratify the ballots cast in Bannock County and is also considered high-risk of experiencing complications if diagnosed with COVID-19, says she was aghast when presented with Dixon’s face-covering policy for the county.

“I was shocked to learn the Bannock County Elections Office does not have a mask requirement, nor will there be any mask requirements at polling stations in the general election, including poll workers,” Pumphrey said. “For the safety of at-risk individuals and others, it is important for the public to know this ahead of time in order to make an informed decision on how we are voting and how much time, if we choose, we have to request an absentee ballot. I have volunteered at the Bannock County Elections Office the past several elections during the ratification process of the vote. I have had the utmost respect for this office and how they treat each ballot as sacred. I often share this enthusiasm with my friends and family. This time I am disappointed. This is a public safety issue.”

Dixon said potential claims of voter suppression is one factor the elections office considered when implementing the personal choice policy for face coverings.

“If we have one person that comes in and says they will absolutely not wear a mask and we refuse to let them in to cast their ballot, they could claim that was voter suppression and we could get in trouble for that,” Dixon said.

Craig Knutson, a resident of Lava Hot Springs who is currently in quarantine awaiting COVID-19 test results, said he was appalled to learn of the personal choice face-covering policy, adding that indoor spaces are potentially dangerous places for COVID-19 to spread even with precautions in place. He also believes any arguments for voter suppression can go both ways.

“Voter suppression works two ways,” Knutson said. “If you have people that are concerned with safety and the polls aren’t safe, isn’t that voter suppression? Asking someone to wear a mask or providing them a mask and that person still feeling uncomfortable is voter suppression in the eyes of the elections office, but doesn’t it also work the other way around? Their solution is that all the people concerned with mask-wearing should vote by mail, but why not have the folks who insist on being unsafe and refuse to wear a mask vote by mail?”

While Dixon is not requiring face-coverings, he said the elections office has implemented several measures to ensure local voters feel safe casting their ballots in person on election day. In addition to situating poll workers at least 6 feet away from one another and away from voters entering the elections office or polling locations to cast their ballots, Dixon said plexiglass sneeze guards have been installed at the elections office, creating a barrier between election officials and the general public.

“We have our workers that are socially distanced and sneeze guards up between us and the public,” Dixon said. “If we go out in front of the desks, then we put on masks. But we are not requiring people to wear a mask when they come in. We have curbside voting available and people who don’t feel comfortable voting in public can drop off their absentee ballots in person or mail them in, so long as we receive them by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.”

Additionally, Dixon said poll workers will ask voters who decide to cast their ballots in person to first wash their hands before entering a poll booth, and the elections office has purchased several dozen gallons of hand sanitizer and disinfecting solution, which workers will use to clean stations in between uses.

No matter how bad the COVID-19 pandemic gets in Southeast Idaho, a mandate requiring face-coverings be worn in public places is not an option, at least for now, after the Board of Health for Southeastern Idaho Public Health, which includes one representative from each of the eight counties within the region, voted in July to only strongly encourage face-coverings.

However, SIPH Director Maggie Mann says SIPH has consistently provided the public with the same guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in that when you are in a public setting you should be wearing a cloth-face covering, and especially in cases when social distancing cannot occur.

“These limited tools that we have in our toolbox, like face-coverings and social distancing, work optimally when they are used together,” Mann said.

Bannock County voters have until Oct. 23 to request an absentee ballot, and the elections office must receive the ballot no later than 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. Voters can send their absentee ballots to the elections office in the mail, place them in a ballot collection box or hand deliver them to the elections office.

Additionally, early voting at the Bannock County Elections Office at 141 N. Sixth Ave. is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until Oct. 30.