It's Aug. 3, the day before ballots are due for the 2020 Primary Election. You swear you left your mail-in ballot magnetized to your refrigerator, but it's not there now and the clock is ticking. What do you do?
In a typical year in Thurston County, you would go to the Auditor's Office in Building 1 of the county courthouse complex and get a replacement ballot.
But, during COVID-19, Auditor Mary Hall says that wasn't a safe option.
So for this year's primary and general elections, voters will instead be able to access physically distant, drive-through voting services launched Wednesday at South Puget Sound Community College's campus on Mottman Road in Olympia.
'It was the perfect solution'
The idea has been in the works since March, Elections Manager Tillie Naputi-Pullar told The Olympian on a tour of the new set-up Wednesday.
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When the pandemic hit, Auditor Hall said her staff got nervous working in the small office, which has a lobby just big enough to host two visitors at a time while following social distancing guidelines that demand 6 feet between people. In fact, the office shut down the day before the other county offices did, according to Hall.
Once it was clear the virus wasn't going away anytime soon, Hall said she knew they needed a new strategy for the upcoming elections. While many services offered by the Auditor's Office can be accessed online, elections can bring in throngs of voters.
Early on in an election, people who are about to head out of town for a long stretch will often stop by to pick up ballots before they've arrived in their mailboxes, Hall said. Some voters with disabilities come for accessibility voting services. Some visitors request voter data, or need replacement ballots because they made a mistake or spilled on theirs.
In the 2016 Presidential Election, Hall said about 2,000-3,000 people physically showed up on Election Day alone, forming lines that stretched out the building's doors.
Initially, Hall said she considered erecting a job shack behind the courthouse complex, but that idea was a bust, due in part to the parking and traffic congestion it would create. Then County Assessor Steven Drew, an SPSCC trustee, suggested the campus.
"It was the perfect solution," Hall said in a phone interview.
The Board of County Commissioners approved relocating the services to the Mottman Campus for the two upcoming elections, with funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that's meant to be used to address the COVID-19 emergency.
A factor in the decision, said Elections Manager Naputi-Pullar, was that SPSCC wasn't holding its summer session in-person.
Whatever happens in the fall, SPSCC spokesperson Kelly Green told The Olympian, the college expects the number of people on campus to be significantly lower than normal. Many classes will stay online, Green said, and events and meetings that typically take place at the Student Union building, where much of the Auditor's current operations are located, won't be happening.
It may be disruptive for people who do show up to the campus, she said, but it was worth it to increase voter access.
"We'll have faculty, staff, and some students on campus, but not a ton," Green said. "And we felt this was such an important thing our community needed that we could provide space for."
The point of the temporary move is, of course, to keep voters and staff safe during the pandemic, Hall said. To that end, staff will be screened for symptoms and have their temperatures checked each day.
Setting up the whole operation was a heavy lift, Hall said.
It involved establishing a secure network and radio channels, creating and obtaining approval for signage, installing security cameras and a phone system, and working across several agencies and jurisdictions. For example, county Public Works built a ramp so people can drive up onto a sidewalk, typically reserved for pedestrians, without bottoming out.
Hall said the Aug. 4 primary is a sort of "dry run" leading up to the Presidential Election, when she expects an especially large turnout.
How the SPSCC drive-through works
Voters seeking drive-through services should enter the campus from Crosby Boulevard Southwest via Crosby Loop, a map of the location shows.
Those looking for ballots, for other documents, or to register to vote will drive up onto the wide sidewalk where they will begin a process that follows the familiar cadence of a fast-food restaurant's drive-through.
Stop one: A staff member comes out of a building that's usually an SPSCC lecture hall and visits the driver's window. They ask what the voter needs and hand them a mask if they don't already have one.
The staff member communicates that voter's "order" via radio to a second building, which usually houses the Student Union.
Stop two: Drivers progress to the Student Union building, where another staff member delivers the documents they ordered to their car. Voters who call ahead can request a ballot and skip directly to this stop, Hall told The Olympian.
At the end, drivers ready to vote can follow signs to a lot where they can park, fill out their ballots, and put them in a recently installed drop box.
People there for accessible voting services or who arrive on foot are served at the lecture hall, where decals on the floor mark spaces 6 feet apart. Parking for voters with disabilities is outside the lecture hall, and can be found by following a route separate from the bus loop that's marked by signs.
According to the Auditor's Office, the Drive-Through Voting Center will be open:
* 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. July 15 through July 31;
* 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1;
* 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 3; and
* 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Election Day, Tuesday, Aug. 4.
Any voter waiting in line at 8 p.m. on Election Day will be allowed to vote, according to the release.
Registered voters who haven't received a ballot by Wednesday, July 22, or who want to order a ballot before visiting SPSCC should contact the Auditor's Office at 360-786-5408 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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