But election so far has proven to be remarkably safe for frontline workers.
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As record numbers of ballots flood into New Jersey’s election boards, vote counters in one county find themselves hamstrung by another outsized 2020 phenomenon: COVID-19.
Officials confirmed Monday that the Mercer County Board of Elections was forced to shut down earlier this month after a worker or workers contracted the virus, which has killed more than 14,500 residents of New Jersey and some 225,000 people across the U.S. since March.
Workers quarantined at home for two weeks in the early and middle days of October, just as ballots began pouring into the office in New Jersey’s first all-mail general election. Thousands of ballots that had been mailed in or collected from the county’s 19 drop boxes sat in secure mail bins while staffers isolated at home, said Anthony Francioso, chairman of the election board.
“We’re basically still catching up, but we’re not quite there,” Francioso said, noting that callers have inundated the county asking why their ballots have yet to show up on the state’s tracking system online. “People need to be patient. We’re getting to their ballots. They’re in a safe place.”
The rising number of COVID-19 cases is only the latest in a series of challenges facing stressed election workers as the state mounts an election like none in its 233-year history. Already, more than 2.4 million ballots have been cast, and election officials say the sheer volume is testing their technical and logistical limits.
Not the least of the hurdles facing election workers are confused voters who are unaccustomed to voting by mail.
Safety on the frontlines
State officials said that despite the Mercer County virus scare and one other possible COVID-19 related incident affecting workers, the election has thus far proven remarkably safe for people on the frontlines.
The New Jersey Department of State, which oversees voter issues, said it has been working for months to safeguard the election against the virus. Every county, officials said, submitted contingency plans to cope with the possibility of a crippling flare-up. Using federal grants, the state has also distributed protective gear to all ballot workers.
“We all knew this was a possibility, so we made plans and they appear to be working,” said Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the Department of State.
Officials declined to provide details about the health of workers affected by the virus.
On Monday, the state announced 1,223 new cases in New Jersey, as infections rise to levels not seen in the state since May. There were 29 new cases in Mercer County. In the past month alone, total COVID-19 cases in New Jersey have risen by more than 200,000.
In Mercer County, election workers are now sequestered in satellite offices in a Trenton gymnasium with large glass windows, where voters can watch workers process ballots as they prepare to start counting on Wednesday.
That’s four days after workers in New Jersey’s 20 other counties began the arduous counting ritual, which includes stacking up piles of votes by town and then scanning them with electronic tabulators. Thousands of new ballots are still coming from Mercer County’s 253,000 registered voters.
“It’s a huge lift, one like we never had. But we’re getting it done now,” Francioso said.