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Lose your ballot? Forget to register? Pierce County libraries help with Election Day snafus

In this photo taken Oct. 24, 2019 in Tacoma, Wash. Initiative 976 is shown on a Pierce County general election ballot.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
In this photo taken Oct. 24, 2019 in Tacoma, Wash. Initiative 976 is shown on a Pierce County general election ballot.

Just 21 percent of Pierce County voters cast a ballot in the recent primary, a level of turnout some officials have called "disappointing."

A new service could help boost participation.

The county and its libraries are transforming 27 library branches into help centers for people struggling to vote on Election Day.

Voters can go to just about any library in Pierce County, and staff can assist with a variety of last-minute problems. 

"You come in and you say, 'Oh my gosh, I lost my ballot,'" said Georgia Lomax, executive director of the Pierce County Library System. "'I didn't get my ballot.' 'I used my ballot to line the parrot's bird cage.' Or, 'I just moved here and I forgot to register to vote.' They send us your ballot, we print it off, and you are able to immediately fill it out."

Library staff will have a secure connection by phone and email to staff at a Tacoma voting center run by the Pierce County Auditor's office.

Voters shouldn't use the service for routine voting, Lomax said. It's meant for last-minute problems, and only available on Election Day until the 8 p.m. voting cutoff. This year, Election Day is Nov. 5. 

Pierce County is one of two counties piloting the "points of assistance" service, along with Clallam County.

Lomax said the idea stems from the state Legislature's passage of same-day voter registration in 2018. This is the first year the law is in effect.

Pierce and Clallam counties first offered the service during the primary, but did not heavily promote it. In Pierce County, 68 people sought help with voting at 17 library branches. A third said in a survey that they were only able to vote because of the help they received. 

"It's really easy to forget that you haven't changed your address," Lomax said. "There are really simple reasons why people may not have a ballot. And if we can make it easier by being close to them, by being available, by being helpful, I think it's going to make it all the more easy for people to participate." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.