BELLE PLAINE — Kansas counties are making their own rules about whether to require poll workers to wear masks as the public votes, even though the state spent $1.28 million to buy personal protective equipment for every polling location.
Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab has issued no statewide mandate requiring poll workers to wear masks, his spokeswoman said.
"Every county election office works with their local health department to determine COVID-19 protocols," said Katie Koupal, spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office.
That has created a patchwork of masking practices for poll workers across Kansas. While the state's more urban counties generally require masks, the rural counties often do not.
Butler County Clerk Tatum Stafford said her county does not mandate masks, so she believes she cannot mandate them for her poll workers.
"I provide everything for them — the shields and the masks, the gloves — whatever they need. Most, a lot, of mine wear them, but we do have some that, you know, absolutely refuse to wear them," Stafford said. "They just say they don't feel like they should have to wear them."
The secretary of state's office said it used federal coronavirus aid to buy every polling location in Kansas a kit containing 12 bottles of hand sanitizer, three bottles of sanitizing spray, nine boxes of wipes, 100 face masks, 200 gloves, use instructions and hand washing encouragement signs. The state also purchased plexiglass shields for every polling location and single-use stylus pens to limit common touch points, Koupal said.
During primary voting, the ACLU of Kansas received complaints from voters that some poll workers were not wearing masks or were not wearing them correctly. One Ellis County voter sent the organization a photo of poll workers without masks at the poll in the Sternberg Museum.
"It is creating a huge, huge concern that people are going to be deterred from voting," said Lauren Bonds, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. "It could disenfranchise voters who have pre-existing conditions that would make them uniquely vulnerable to COVID, but also virtually anybody."
Bonds said it is her understanding that the concerned Ellis County voter who sent them the picture did go ahead and vote anyway.
Elections officials cannot deny people their fundamental right to vote if voters do not wear masks at polling places, but the issue is more complex when it comes to requiring them for poll workers.
Poll workers must use face coverings — either because of a local government mask mandate or because local election officials require them — in at least Johnson, Sedgwick, Wyandotte, Douglas and Riley counties.
Most counties have opted out of the statewide mask mandate issued by Gov. Laura Kelly, and mask requirements also differ from city to city. The Ellis County Commission, for example, decided not to impose a countywide mask mandate. But the City of Hays, where the Sternberg Museum is located, has a citywide mask requirement.
Ellis County Clerk Donna Maskus said she didn't see unmasked workers during primary voting at the museum.
But Maskus is not requiring masks for her poll workers at voting places outside of Hays. She said those workers wore masks anyway during the primary and noted that plexiglass shields have been installed at those sites.
"I am encouraging them to," she said about mask wearing. "Encouraging is my word."