Early voting underway in Washington County; rumors about armed militia at polling location discredited

ST. GEORGE — Though activity at the Dixie Convention Center in St. George was calm Wednesday afternoon during the second day of early voting, Washington County’s elections clerk said it “had been slammed” when the doors admitting voters to the county’s sole in-person polling location first opened.

Early voting gets underway at the Dixie Convention Center in St. George, Utah, Oct. 28. 2020 | Photo by St. George News

“There’s always that line in the morning, but they get processed through very quickly and now we have walk-up voting,” Melanie Abplanalp, the county’s elections clerk, said Wednesday afternoon.

The initial rush of voters that lined up at the doors of the convention center was divided among three of seven aisles called “zones.” In each zone, voters verified their identities and registration with election volunteers who then gave them a paper ballot. These ballots were then filled out by voters who sat or stood behind voting booths.

The voting booths – which took the form of white, plastic three-sided screens people were able to conceal their voting behind – were either clustered in twos or threes on a tabletop or set up individually. Each table was also set 6 feet apart to encourage social distancing due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns. All of the volunteers and county staff, as well as most of the incoming voters, also wore face masks as they moved through the voting process.

“We have the Dixie Center set up into three zones for early voting, and we have done some calculations,” Abplanalp said. “We found our awesome elections staff is able to process 100 voters an hour through each zone. Right now we can easily handle 300 voters an hour.”

Early voting started Tuesday and continues Thursday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Dixie Convention Center, 1835 Convention Center Drive in St. George.

Three hundred voters an hour will likely jump to 700 on Election Day when the other four zones open for use.

Two of the “zones” leading people to the voting booths as early voting gets underway at the Dixie Convention Center in St. George, Utah, Oct. 28. 2020 | Photo by St. George News

Concerning Election Day, Abplanalp asks that voters be patient, especially in the morning when it is usually the busiest.

“We’ll process people quickly and efficiently to get them through and done, but of course, we ask them to be a bit patient,” she said.

It is anticipated that a large crowd of voters will converge on the Dixie Convention Center as it is the only in-person polling location in the county.

While there has been some negative response over social media due to Washington County only having one location, it’s happening that way because the county no longer has the resources readily available to create multiple in-person polling stations, Washington County Clark/Auditor Kim Hafen previously told St. George News.

The lack of in-person resources is a result of the county’s going to a mail-in voting system in 2018 and not purchasing a slew of new voting machines due to the change in voting practice. However, state law requires that at least one in-person polling location be open with the county for those who still want to vote that way.

Election interference?

When asked if there had been any signs of potential election tampering at the polling location, Abplanalp said she hadn’t noticed anything odd or out of place.

Early voting gets underway at the Dixie Convention Center in St. George, Utah, Oct. 28. 2020 | Photo by St. George News

While it hasn’t been as much of a concern in previous years, this year has seen a rise in worries related to potential threats of election fraud and interference.

An example of this was outlined in an email sent to St. George News Tuesday, which was also sent to local law enforcement agencies, warning of the potential presence of armed militia members at the county’s sole polling location during early voting or Election Day.

This sort of action is illegal under Utah law and also counts as voter intimidation, the email states.

A local group that was mentioned by name in the email was the “Civil Ground Patrol.” The term appears to be used by various groups across the country. In Southern Utah, it has been connected to the Liberty Action Coalition. The coalition was one of many groups involved in an All Lives Matter counter-protest in late August and in an anti-mask mandate rally in April.

Early voting gets underway at the Dixie Convention Center in St. George, Utah, Oct. 28. 2020 | Photo by St. George News

Patricia Kent, who heads the coalition, said the Civil Ground Patrol wasn’t a militia, but rather a large group of “concerned citizens who act like a neighborhood watch.” However, the county is home to a few militias, she said.

The group drives around town keeping an eye out for anything suspicious, and then they inform law enforcement about anything they find, Kent said.

As for whether the group was planning to be at the polling station, Kent said, “We’re not planning to be at the polling location, no.”

Kent added that she didn’t think anything majorly disruptive would happen on Election Day or the day after in Southern Utah.

“I think we all live in a pretty unified community,” she said.

Calls made to law agencies the email was addressed to were not returned by the time of this publication.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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