People vote while wearing masks at Mission Branch Library. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Charles Owen instructed voters Monday at the Henry Guerra Library to hold up their driver’s licenses against the Plexiglas tri-fold separating him from the rest of the room. 

“Have you moved?” the election judge asked one voter wearing a purple cloth mask. She told him no. “This will be your ballot card,” he said, handing her a long sheet of paper. “Sign in, then use any vacant machine.”

As cases of the novel coronavirus continued to rise significantly in Bexar County, early voting for the runoff election in Texas started on Monday. Election judges and clerks at 31 early voting sites across the county opened their doors at 8 a.m., helping more than 1,400 voters cast ballots by noon.

Owen’s not exactly sure how many years he has been working as an election judge in Bexar County, but it’s been about 20 years. Like his fellow election workers on Monday, he wore a surgical mask and gloves to the polling place. Owen is in his 70s, putting him in a high-risk age group if he were to contract the coronavirus. He said he was concerned about how in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic would work.

“We had doubts,” Owen said. “But we also have patriotism. Someone has to be here so the voters can come and vote.”

For Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen, seeing those election officials – the average age of which is 72 – take their places at each voting site was deeply troubling.

“I felt like I was the reason they were going to go out into the field and it just really, really took a toll on me over the weekend,” Callanen said. “It’s just all these wonderful people who are ready to go out there and work for civic duty and a cause, and the [coronavirus case] numbers are off the charts and … it just tore my heart apart. I wish I could have said, ‘You don’t have to go.’ But they did.”

The Lions Field Adult and Senior Center was, as usual, one of the most popular voting sites on Monday, according to Callanen. Voters wore masks as they went inside, and election workers instructed them to put on gloves before touching anything. Anthony Willett, 28, voted Monday afternoon at Lions Field. He usually votes on the first day of early voting, he said, and felt very secure doing so even during the pandemic.

“I’m a pharmacist, so this was nothing compared to what I’m around every day,” he said. “I waited outside until they were ready to let me inside. [It was] very well controlled.”

Even though Lions Field reported some of the highest voting numbers in the first day of the two-week early voting period, the parking lot outside the front door was quiet. Jessica Elizarraras, 34, drove to the senior center to vote with her husband. They wore cloth masks crafted by Elizarraras’ mom. Though she understood why people might be apprehensive about voting during a pandemic, Elizarraras said she was disappointed by how empty Lions Field looked.

“I think the line – or the lack thereof – is a little awkward,” she said. “I hope people are still coming out and aren’t afraid to do so.”

Callanen said she expects a 2 percent to 5 percent turnout total for this election, as the runoff does not usually draw many voters.

Eva Cook, a 50-year-old election clerk working at the Guerra Library voting site, made sure voters either sanitized their hands or put on a plastic glove as they walked through the door. She said voters for the most part have been taking the prescribed coronavirus prevention precautions.

“Everyone has been wearing a mask,” she said.

In front of her, 80-year-old Stanley Steger directed voters to sign their name on a sheet of paper and pointed them to empty voting machines. Steger has been working as an election judge for around 50 years, he said, and he wasn’t going to stop this year.

“I’ve been doing it for years,” Steger said. “I would hate to miss it. But maybe this is one time we shouldn’t do this, I don’t know. But how many people work at Walmart? There’s a lot of people sticking their necks on the line.”

The Elections Department equipped election judges with personal protective gear to minimize the chance for coronavirus transmission. Bexar County commissioners allocated $2.4 million to help with election costs, and much of that went toward paying election workers, Callanen said. But some went toward the new coronavirus prevention measures; Plexiglas separators alone cost $106,000. The department purchased gloves, finger coverings, and pencils with erasers on the end that voters could use on the voting machine touchscreen, as well as hand sanitizer and face masks for election workers.

Cook wore a plastic face shield on top of her face mask. Small fans whirred in the Guerra Library voting location, increasing air circulation. And election workers made sure to hand voters the “I Voted!” sticker on their way out, to ensure only they would touch the roll of stickers. 

Plexiglas is set up in the voting locations to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Credit: Facebook / Bexar County Elections Department

The department also bought 300 trash cans, Callanen said. 

“I never thought in elections you’d have to provide trash cans,” Callanen said. “But in this unusual time, we wanted to make sure that by the exit there is a trash can with a liner so [voters] can throw those gloves away there, they can throw those finger coverings in there, and not take them out.”

Callanen urged voters to continue covering their faces while voting in person to protect election judges’ health. Some of her regular election officials called to tell her they didn’t feel safe working poll sites during the coronavirus pandemic, but most of them are still out there, Callanen said.

“Please, please, please keep the election officials safe,” she said. “Please, please, please. We can’t mandate [wearing a mask at voting sites]. But please, respect people that are there. Put that mask on while you’re there. That’s my slogan for the next two weeks: Please, please, please respect the election officials.”

Willett wore a yellow surgical mask to vote, matching his bright yellow tie. He acknowledged that polling locations felt safer only because few people showed up to vote at the same time he did, and that in-person voting may not be the best choice for everyone.

“It’s not the ideal situation, but … it’s the only option we have right now,” he said. “Obviously mail-in [voting] would be preferred. It doesn’t matter to me because I’m young and healthy and take precautions. But for the less healthy or slightly older, they may have preferred voting via mail. That’s the smart thing.”

Mail-in ballots applications must be received by the Elections Department by July 2. The United States Supreme Court recently denied Texas Democrats’ request to expand mail-in voting in the state. The Texas Supreme Court also said in May that lack of immunity against the coronavirus does not qualify as a disability, but rejected Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to prevent election officials from sending mail-in ballots to voters who cite their lack of coronavirus immunity as a disability.

Early voting continues through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Polls are closed Friday and Saturday in observance of July Fourth. They reopen on Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. and are open next Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Find polling locations and hours here.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.