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Kellie Estep casts her vote on the first day of early voting at the Howard County Government Center on Oct. 8, 2019.

It’s finally here.

Early voting started Tuesday at the downtown Howard County Government Center, marking the official start of the 2019 general election. Voters are now able to make their selections for Kokomo mayor, Common Council seats and the city clerk.

This means that as candidates make a final month’s worth of pleas ahead of Nov. 5, voters can forgo the coming days and weeks of campaign persuasions, along with Election Day hassles, to cast their votes early.

Here’s how you can do that:

Where to vote early

Right now, the only place voters can cast a ballot is at the Government Center, which will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday until Nov. 1 at 120 E. Mulberry St.

It will also be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on two Saturdays: Oct. 26 and Nov. 2. Its doors will be open to voters, too, from 8 a.m. to noon Nov. 4, the day before Election Day.

Five vote centers will open later this month, starting with Indiana Wesleyan University, 1916 E. Markland Ave. It will first open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26.

Joining IWU in late October will be the Carver Community Center, 1030 N. Purdum St.; Russiaville Lions Club, 555 N. Liberty St.; Titan Annex Facility, 3794 E. 300 South; and United Auto Workers Local 685 Hall, 929 E. Hoffer St.

While IWU will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 29 to Nov. 3, the other four locations will be open from noon to 7 p.m. those same dates.

What happens to your ballot?

Ballots cast early are placed in envelopes and transported to the Courthouse the next morning, where they are put in a locked cabinet and opened on Election Day, confirmed Howard County Clerk Debbie Stewart.

She said ballots are held overnight at the Government Center or voter centers and go through a process of sealed boxes and locked rooms that later includes verification from both parties.

Stewart also said a report is run each day to ensure each ballot is accounted for.

The clerk’s office is likely to keep an especially close eye on the envelopes after the shocking disclosure in February that more than 1,100 unopened, uncounted ballots from the 2018 general election were discovered two months after the election in a secure Courthouse room.

The unopened envelopes – they did not affect any election outcomes – included ballots from early voting at the downtown Government Center and mail-in ballots.

Blame for the incident was placed at the feet of former clerk Kim Wilson, who served in the role through last year.

The office received criticism following the incident, with Howard County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Skiles calling on Stewart to “put in place safeguards to ensure this does not happen again and show how the office will be open and transparent.”

Stewart said in February she would install a procedures manual to outline responsibilities for all election workers “to make certain that all workers are performing their duties, with checks and backup measures, to ensure every eligible vote is counted and counted on time.”

She said Tuesday that she is closely monitoring the election, like she did this spring during a primary election that went off without controversy.

“What we’ve done is, I go over things with the election workers that I have in the election room here in the Courthouse to ensure everything is done each day before we leave. The reports have been run, ballots have been accounted for. And then we lock up,” said Stewart.

“As far as procedures, it’s basically what we’ve done for the 15 years I’ve been on the election board. I’m a very detailed person. I just make sure everything is done according to the way I’ve instructed them to do it.”

What will turnout look like?

Kokomo saw a 19% voter turnout in this spring’s primary election. Local officials are expecting that turnout to increase significantly this fall.

Stewart said Tuesday she is preparing for at least 50 percent turnout for the general election. She acknowledged that number may be a bit high but said, “I think people are going to come out and vote.”

She expects around half of that turnout, “if not more,” to come from early voting.

“A lot of people will come out and early vote, so they don’t go out on Election Day,” she said, noting that by 3:15 p.m. Tuesday there had been 90 ballots cast at the Government Center.

“Then you have people that want to vote on Election Day, so they won’t early vote. It’s kind of hard to tell, but for the most part we have seen more early voting than we have on Election Day over the past three elections.”

The reason for high early voting figures, she said, is in part because of how easy it has become for Howard County residents.

“This year we gave them six days to early vote and the last presidential election we gave them nine. It’s easier for them, we’ve given them more time, availability, so it’s easier for people to find the time to go out and vote,” she said.

She said this year’s election has fewer early voting opportunities because it is not county-wide; only Kokomo residents can vote in this year’s races.

The interest in presidential elections always trumps other election cycles, as well. She noted, though, that this year’s election carries a heavy amount of interest as Kokomo is set to elect a new mayor for the first time in more than a decade.

A turnout anywhere around 50% would be a major improvement over the previous municipal election, in 2015, when just 25% of voters showed up at the polls. That election, however, was held prior to the implementation of the existing vote center system.

Meanwhile, exactly how many days of early voting there will be in Howard County next year is still up in the air, remarked Stewart.

“Next year, we may increase it back to nine, but because we have one presidential election that we can go back and get data from, we might be able to adjust our numbers. Maybe go from nine to eight or seven. We’ll just have to look at the data and make that decision,” she said.

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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