Roughly 150 Lafayette Parish residents trickled to the polls Saturday for the first day of presidential primary early voting as Louisiana undergoes its first test balancing voting access and coronavirus mitigation in the lead-up to fall’s general election.

Whether because of the novel coronavirus pandemic or the limited ballot, the volume of voters was down starkly Saturday compared to an average first day of early voting, Lafayette Parish Registrar of Voters Charlene Menard said.

The longtime registrar said she’s accustomed to arriving at the Lafayette Street site to a line of voters waiting for the doors to open; Saturday morning, there was only one woman, she said.

The primary is a closed party election; only registered Democrats and Republicans can cast ballots to select their presidential candidate and representatives for the parties’ respective local executive committee and for Democrats, the state central committee.

The morning is usually the busy period, Menard said, but by 11 a.m. the early polling site had only seen 60 voters. At day’s end, the number only reached 162 people, a far cry from the average 1,000 people the office is used to seeing, Menard reported.

The registrar said she understands voters may be hesitant because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re just as scared as them and we’re taking the precautions to stay safe,” Menard said.

Poll workers are donning protective gowns, gloves and masks, are seated behind Plexiglas stations and are wiping down everything voters come into contact with, including pens, the voting machines and electronic voter cards after each use, she said.

Menard said markers are spaced six feet apart if voters need to queue, voters must wait in the lobby downstairs or line up outside to prevent crowding in enclosed spaces, and hand sanitizer is available. Voters are also asked to bring their own pen and mask — while masks aren’t required to cast a ballot, they are encouraged, she said.

The registrar said she’s hopeful voter numbers will increase in coming days; voters can cast early ballots from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, except Sundays, through July 4.

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Kimberly Bibbins, of Youngsville, is a regular early voter and said when she arrived Saturday, she thought the polling location was closed because of how quiet it was. Bibbins and her family members are vigilant mask wearers and she said she expects the same from local officials and was pleased to see the safety precautions taken Saturday.

One precaution — allowing voters to scan their own licenses — also made the process feel more hands-on and secure, she said. The 40-year-old said she appreciated being able to verbally confirm her name and address with the poll worker and have more involvement in the process.

Beth and Jude Chiasson, of Lafayette, said they were a little apprehensive about bringing their 9-year-old son, Austen, to the polls because of the virus and their uncertainty about how crowded and safe the experience would be, but they said it was swift and well managed.

“I’m really big about not skipping any elections, but this is one I felt that maybe we could have skipped and it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I’m glad we got the experience to know what it’s going to be like for the next one, which is going to be really big and really important,” Beth Chiasson said.

The Chiassons said the registrar’s safety precautions were expected but still jarring to see in person. Their seriousness was appreciated and confirmed that election officials are at least thinking about virus safety, which will be critical during the fall presidential election, they said. People shouldn’t have to fear for their safety when casting a ballot.

“People still need to come out to vote to make their voices heard,” Judge Chiasson said.

The Chiassons said they hope officials will consider in-person voting alternatives, like expanded mail ballots, or other creative measures, like the ability to sign up for a voting time, to prevent long lines and voting pile ups like have been seen in other states. Bibbins said she thinks early voting will be increasingly important for the presidential election in the fall.

Menard said many voters 65 and older are applying for mail ballots after a push from the Louisiana Secretary of State, who mailed letters to the homes of qualified registered voters with an application and a pre-paid and addressed envelope to send the application to the local registrar’s office.

Since then, the number of mail-in ballots requested for the primary has risen from an average of 1,800 to over 6,000 and continues to increase, the registrar said. Just Saturday, Menard’s office was processing dozens of additional requests.

Not everyone has been pleased by the vote by mail push for older residents. Menard shuffled through a loose stack of applications mailed to her office scrawled with profanities like, “This is Bulls**t,” and rants about mail-in voting compromising elections. The registrar said she doesn’t see it that way.

“I feel fortunate enough to say we protect our voters and I believe in the system,” Menard said.


Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com