Tensions over next week's election amid a crippling virus pandemic spilled over during a Tuesday meeting of the Jackson County Board of Elections.

The called Zoom meeting was a times testy and tense as board members hotly debated how to handle the processing of several thousand absentee ballots for the June 9 election.

Typically, there are only a small number of absentee ballots in local elections, but this year, the COVID virus and the need for social distancing led the state to promote absentee ballot voting. The result has been a much larger than usual return of absentee ballots to be processed.

In the past, members of the board of elections have helped process absentee ballots on election day by opening the envelopes and making sure every ballot is accounted for before they are taken by county elections staff members for counting.

But elections board member Erma Denney said during Tuesday's meeting that she was uncomfortable handling any ballots since the board will eventually have to certify the election.

"I just don't feel comfortable having any physical contact with the ballots," she said.

Denney also questioned if the board's direct involvement in helping process the absentee ballots is the "right optics" for the board.

Part of the problem is that because of the virus, the county has fewer poll workers than normal, elections director Jennifer Logan said. She also noted that having board members open absentee envelopes is legal and is done in a lot of other counties where staff resources are low.

In addition to the issue of how much hands-on board members should have in the process, the board also debated why the absentee ballots couldn't be opened early under a special state provision approved this year.

The board had apparently debated that issue via email in recent days, but Logan said the deadline had passed for giving public notice that would allow early absentee opening. She also said she was concerned about the overall security of opening ballots early.

"Things could get mixed up," she said. "It's just a bad idea."

TESTY EXCHANGES

But the most striking aspect of the discussion was the level of open hostility between some board members.

Elections board chairman Eric Crawford said that it's legal for board members to help with the absentee process and challenged Denney to offer an alternative.

"If you've got a cache of poll workers that you're hiding-out on us and that you can bring in, phenomenal, let's do that — we can deputize them," Crawford said.

Board member Larry Ewing, who said he supported Denney's position, pushed back.

"Eric, I think that's out of line," he said. "It's not the responsibility of the board to get poll workers in, that's the responsibility of the office to take care of that."

Logan pushed back to that comment, saying the board also has a responsibility to help with getting enough workers to hold elections.

Crawford also pushed back at Ewing.

"Larry, what have you done to ensure we have enough poll workers?" he asked.

Calling this election "crazy, crazy," Logan at times sounded exasperated with the board's questioning and second-guessing of the process.

"Friday night, I will probably be here until 10 o'clock," she said. "You're more than welcome to join me ..."

But Denney cut her off.

"I don't want to be lectured on how long and how many hours you take," she said.

NO RESOLUTION

In the end, the board didn't take any action on the absentee ballot issue. Crawford said he would be at the elections office on Tuesday to help with processing absentee ballots, but that other board members who didn't want to help could "tap out."

T.J. Dearman, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party, was listening in on the call and said he would find some GOP volunteers to come help on election day as well.

(UPDATE: In subsequent emails with Crawford, Dearman said he couldn't find anyone to help criticized the board for not opening absentee ballots early.)

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