ACLU of Kansas files complaint for Ellis County election worker over lack of mask mandate

An Ellis County voter submits her ID to a poll worker at the Hays Recreation Center during the August primary. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas says Ellis County election workers and voters are placed at risk of contracting COVID-19 because other election workers are refusing to wear a mask. (Becky Kiser/Hays Post)

TOPEKA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas is seeking an investigation into the refusal of the Ellis County clerk and Kansas Secretary of State to require election workers to wear a facemask.

The ACLU filed a complaint with the Kansas Department of Labor on behalf of an Ellis County election worker who has a heart transplant and fears for safety. The complaint says employees and volunteers are required to work within close proximity to each other and voters in closed spaces for extended periods of time.

Ellis County Clerk Deborah Maskus and the Kansas Secretary of State’s office failed to protect the health and safety of workers by not requiring them to wear masks, the ACLU contends.

“I am at risk for serious harm every time I enter a polling location or the clerk’s office,” the unnamed employee said in the complaint, which was filed Thursday.

The complaint includes photos of clerk’s office employees not wearing a mask, and it references other photos published by the Hays Post. A voter also contacted the ACLU with concerns about being placed at risk for COVID-19 because workers weren’t wearing a mask, the complaint said.

COVID-19 cases have spiked in Ellis County, with nearly all of the 1,416 total cases recorded since early August. The county’s health department reported its rolling seven-day average is nine new cases per day. The county, with a population of about 28,500, has recorded 18 deaths from COVID-19.

The highly contagious virus is spread through airborne droplets from talking, coughing and sneezing, or contact with a contaminated surface. For survivors, the virus can cause long-lasting damage to multiple organ systems. Those with underlying health conditions are considered to be especially vulnerable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends protective face coverings in public settings, especially when individuals cannot maintain six feet of separation. The City of Hays adopted the mask mandate recommended by Gov. Laura Kelly in early July.

“Masks are an integral part of any employer’s workplace safety program during the pandemic and an essential protection against the hazards that COVID-19 presents,” the ACLU argues in its complaint.

Katie Koupal, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office, said election officials work with their local health department to determine COVID-19 protocols for their respective counties. The county clerk oversees elections in all but the four largest counties in Kansas.

“Our office strongly encourages all Kansans to be safe and follow the recommended COVID-19 safety protocols of health professionals,” Koupal said.

The Secretary of State’s office has provided personal protective equipment and plexiglass shields to help protect voters and election workers from COVID-19, Koupal said.

Lauren Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the governor, said the labor department is still reviewing the complaint.

“This is exactly why Gov. Kelly has urged counties to adopt her mask requirement,” Fitzgerald said. “We want to ensure all Kansans are safe when they go to the polls.”