Pair of leases lets Benton County elections spread out for 2020 cycle
Benton County Auditor Brenda Chilton is heading into a busy presidential election season with plenty of room to spread out in both Prosser and the Tri-Cities.
The auditor’s office signed temporary leases for a fruit warehouse in Prosser and a former restaurant in Richland to carry out election work through the 2020 season, funded with a $250,000 federal grant to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on elections.
It will process ballots in the fruit warehouse. The former Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant, near the Richland Wye on North Columbia Center Boulevard, will serve as voter central for both the Aug. 4 primary and the Nov. 3 general election.
Chilton said the money, awarded through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, allowed her to tackle the most pressing challenge of every election – having enough space to process ballots and serve voters.
The auditor’s office operates in two small spaces, one at the county courthouse in Prosser and the other at its Canal Street annex in Kennewick.
Both are cramped in the best of times. The general election will require 20 to 30 extra hands just to open all the envelopes. The Canal Street annex regularly sees several hundred visitors in the days leading up to an election, stressing the already small building and parking lot.
The Covid-19 pandemic upended the delicate balancing act.
The five-month leases for a FruitSmart warehouse in Prosser and the former family restaurant give election staff room to spread out and maintain social distancing. Chilton hopes to extend the leases for two years because she’s uncertain if the pandemic will be over for the 2021 election cycle. She’s requested funds in her budget request to the county commission.
Ballot processing in Prosser won’t directly affect the public. The space has new locks and other security features to preserve the integrity of the ballots. Ballot processing will be live-streamed over the internet to enable monitoring.
Chilton said she welcomes in-person monitors as well but advises those who want to watch ballots being opened in person to call her office to confirm when that is happening.
The former restaurant space, 2610 N. Columbia Center Blvd., replaces the Canal Street annex as voter central.
Voters needing replacement ballots should plan to go there. In Washington, voters can register in person as late as 8 p.m. on Election Day. The Chuck E. Cheese’s spot has room for the public, voting booths and a secure drop box for those who participate at the last second.
It also has ample parking and a new drive-up ballot drop box.
Chilton said about half of voters in Benton County drop ballots in the 10 county drop boxes. The rest arrive by U.S. mail. No postage is needed on Washington ballots.
A parking lot monitor on Canal Street will direct visitors to the new spot and provide a map.
The Tri-City’s Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant moved to a new location by Vista Field in Kennewick about two years ago. The old space has been empty ever since. Chilton said she kept the upgrades to a minimum. Visitors will find the old kid-friendly restaurant colors on the wall.
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