Washington County Election Commission to supply masks but won't require they be worn

"I Voted" stickers for early voters Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, at the Benton County Election Commission office in Rogers.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County's Election Commission is stocking up on face masks, shields, cleaning supplies and other protective equipment, but won't mandate poll workers or voters wear masks for upcoming elections.

Commission member Max Deitchler made a motion Monday to require poll workers to wear masks so voters know polling places are safe. Deitchler said voters may be reluctant to vote in person if poll workers don't.

"Can we require voters to wear them? Probably not, unless the state makes that decision," Deitchler said. "Poll workers are different, those are our employees. I'm of the opinion we should make the poll workers wear them in the August special election."

The special election, set by the commission for Aug. 11, is to decide whether Bethel Heights will be annexed into Springdale.

Jennifer Price, executive director, said the governor's office recently told election officials they can't require masks.

"We cannot require voters to wear a mask," Price said "This was part of our conversation with the attorney for the governor's office and then also with the state Board of Election Commissioners."

She said the issue came up in connection with Fayetteville recently passing an ordinance requiring masks in public places.

"Their opinion is that they have a constitutional right to vote, and we have to offer access to voting," Price said. "Accessibility to voting outweighs them wearing a mask."

The motion died for lack of a second as did a motion to post signs at polling places recommending masks be worn.

Renee Oelschlaeger, chairwoman of the commission, and Commissioner Bill Ackerman both supported buying masks and cleaning equipment, but questioned whether the commission can, or should, order poll workers to wear masks.

"I would suggest we give the poll workers the option to wear them," Ackerman said. "We can't force them to wear it. There's no authority for this commission to force those folks to wear a mask."

Ackerman also questioned whether poll workers are employees of the Election Commission, in the true sense, or whether they are volunteers.