Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab plans to recruit poll workers as young as 16 as a buffer against a potential second wave of COVID-19 infections in the fall; he also wants counties to send application for mail-in ballot to every registered voter; goal is to make polling places safer than trip to Walmart

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TOPEKA — Our democracy could be in the hands of teenagers.

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab is preparing to launch a statewide campaign to get young people to volunteer as poll workers for the November election as a buffer against a possible second wave of COVID-19 infections.

"It's a great opportunity for a 16-year-old to say, 'What can I do to help my country or my state?' " Schwab said. "This is huge because it's a healthy population."

Schwab talked to The Topeka Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board about his plans for keeping Kansas elections safe in light of the deadly and easily transmitted pathogen sweeping the globe.

Recruiting poll workers as young as 16 is part of Schwab’s strategy. In addition to being less likely to get sick from the coronavirus, youths are likely to be comfortable with the technology involved in quickly checking voters.

Schwab said he expects COVID-19 to be less of a concern by the time of the August primary than it is right now. He is more focused on the possibility a second round of illness could coincide with the general election in the fall.

Health officials in Kansas on Saturday attributed 131 deaths to the coronavirus and said more than 4,740 positive tests had been documented in 80 of 105 counties. There are at least 2,000 known cases in Johnson, Wyandotte, Sedgwick and Leavenworth counties, while the meat processing counties of Finney, Ford, Lyon and Seward have reported more than 2,000 cases of infection.

One theory is that the warm summer climate will help buffer against the spread of the disease before it takes off again when temperatures cool.

The secretary of state’s office is encouraging county clerks to send applications for mail-in ballots to every registered voter in hopes of easing congestion on polling day. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot for the primary is July 28, and the general election deadline is Oct. 27.

Federal aid will be used to offset the increased costs of printing and postage for mail-in ballots in cash-strapped counties, Schwab said. Other funds will be used to provide gloves, masks and sanitizer to poll workers.

Schwab said polling places should be safer than a trip to Walmart or a liquor store.

"We want people to participate in this election because it's safe, it's enjoyable and they want to have a say in who their government leaders are going to be," Schwab said. "We don't want fear of COVID to change any of that."

’Voting is a right’

Teresa Briggs, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said every effort should be made to protect poll workers and encourage mail-in ballots.

Schwab’s idea for enlisting teenagers, on the other hand, is antiquated, she said. There are reports of infants, high schoolers and young adults dying from the coronavirus, and asymptomatic youths still could infect voters with the virus.

"I don't know if that's going to be an across-the-board, perfect solution," Briggs said. "It would be great to involve them in the process if they want to work the polls and find out how to do it, but not for that reason."

The pandemic has impact on the typical operations of the League of Women Voters, which typically relies on face-to-face interactions to impress upon people the importance of voting and updating registrations.

"Like everybody else, we're just going to have to change our process of reaching people, whether it's through social media, different online opportunities and things like that," Briggs said. "We of course stand behind the fact that every registered voter should have the opportunity to vote. We, too, are concerned not only about the health of voters as they go to the polls but also the poll workers."

In addition to protective equipment, the state should provide alcohol wipes to cleanse voting machines, Briggs said.

"I know it's a huge undertaking and you have to be sure to think of every little thing, but we just have to do it," Briggs said. "Voting is a right. We need to provide that, and we need to do it in a safe manner for everyone involved."

Voting rights advocate Davis Hammet said the state should allow for same-day voter registration to offset the impact COVID-19 will have on voter registration drives. That would require a change in state law, an unlikely priority for the Legislature if and when lawmakers return later this month to wrap up business.

Hammet said Schwab also should be making plans to educate Kansas residents about the upcoming elections.

"There will likely be intentional disinformation around how the election changes," Hammet said. "The secretary of state needs a robust campaign to inform voters how to vote this year."

The Kansas Democratic Party was working to tabulate votes for its presidential primary. Results were expected to be announced Sunday, depending on the volume of ballots received by mail, email or through the party’s website on Saturday, the deadline for participation.

Court operations

The chief of the Kansas Supreme Court issued a new set of administrative orders for operation of the court system following Gov. Laura Kelly’s decision to lift Sunday the statewide stay-at-home directive. In cities and counties where stay-home orders were extended by local officials, the courts are to adhere to those limits.

Chief Justice Marla Luckert said her instructions to the judicial branch reflected Kelly’s determination the novel coronavirus continued to pose a threat to health and safety of Kansans.

"These orders continue some of the strategies put in place at the beginning of this pandemic response and provide updated guidance for gradually reopening state courts," Luckert said. "This approach reflects our commitment to protecting public health, and the health of our employees and judicial officers, while we increase the number and types of service we are able to deliver to the people of Kansas."

In part, she extended an order suspending deadlines, time standards and other speedy-trial provisions. She authorized two-way telephone or electronic audio-visual communication to replace in-person judicial proceedings.