KOOTENAI COUNTY, Idaho — Amid unprecedented circumstances due to COVID-19, staff at the Kootenai County Elections Office say they've been slammed processing absentee ballots ahead of Idaho's May 19 primary election.

Earlier this year, Idaho leaders announced that the state's primary would be conducted strictly through absentee ballots. Officials at the time said the change for mail-in voting was done out of concerns of the growing coronavirus pandemic. They made the decision after it was obvious that the state could not get polling places and poll workers for the election.

That's resulted in a flood of absentee applications for local elections staff.

"Have you ever seen when a dam opens? That's the flow," remarked Kootenai County Clerk Jim Brannon on Tuesday. "Right now, it's all hands on deck."

Not all years are the same, but Brannon said that his staff will typically receive around 4,100 absentee ballots for any given election or primary.

As of earlier this week, however, the number of completed absentee ballots that had been returned to the county surpassed 12,000.

"The volume of the absentees has increased immensely," said Brannon. "It's actually one of the largest turnouts that we're seeing."

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Brannon said he's brought in staff from other divisions within the clerk's office to help handle the influx. Staff not only have to process absentee applications, but also handle ballots returned in the mail.

"We signature check every application," Brannon said.

Further complicating matters, Brannon explained that the state's quick action to move the primary to absentee-only ballots reduced the amount of time his office had to train temporary helpers.

Rest assured, Brannon said, that trained elections office employees were working hard and thoroughly.

"Our election team is really, really working hard. And I know that they are doing their very best for the citizens of Kootenai County," he said.

The county GOP primary ballot was already drawing local interest due to contested seats in the state legislature and local county commissioner's office. Notably, Kootenai County voters are also set to elect a new sheriff following the looming retirement of current sheriff Ben Wolfinger.

"It's going to be one of the largest re-elections ever," Brannon said.

While Brannon admitted that he has yet to witness a "normal" election or primary in his tenure, he anticipates roughly 26,000-34,000 absentee ballots to come in to the elections office.

The deadline to register to vote and request an absentee ballot is May 19 at 8 p.m. Absentee ballots must be received by the county clerk's office by 8 p.m. on June 2.

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