Wanted: Poll Workers Able to Brave the Pandemic

By: - September 15, 2020 12:00 am

Poll workers check in mailed ballots in Williamstown, Massachusetts, during the Sept. 1 primary. Many poll workers, the majority of whom are over 60, are reluctant to work during the pandemic, leading to shortages and recruitment drives. Gillian Jones/The Berkshire Eagle via The Associated Press

Dave and Diane Schell, a retired social studies teacher and a retired human resources professional from South Windsor, Connecticut, left their careers in 2015, and have worked the polls at their local precinct every election since. But not this November.

The Schells — he’s a Republican, she’s a Democrat — are 68 and 65, respectively, and worried about contracting the coronavirus. They did work the polls during the Connecticut primary in March, at the beginning of the pandemic, but this fall “we decided to follow the [health] recommendations and stay home,” Diane Schell said in a phone interview. They will miss it.

“We love contributing and it’s a lot of fun,” she said. “A lot of young people stepped up for the primary and we hope that continues.”

One young person who stepped up was Brooke Stoker, a 25-year-old graduate of Pace University in New York City who lost her work as a filmmaker and theater usher when the pandemic hit. Retreating to her family home in South Windsor, she was looking for something to do when a family friend suggested working at the polls during the primary. She made sure ballots were fed correctly into the tabulation machine and handed out “I Voted” stickers. She plans to work Nov. 3.

“I felt like it was right up my alley [as an usher],” she said. “‘Go this way, go that way.’”

Election officials in many states are hoping more people like Stoker sign up because they are anticipating severe shortages of people to run the polls on Nov. 3. The shortage may lead to long lines or even numerous poll locations being closed.

The pandemic has exacerbated an already-critical situation. In a 2018 survey by the Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency that helps local jurisdictions conduct elections, 70% of the nearly 6,500 jurisdictions surveyed in all 50 states plus territories responded that it was “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to get enough poll workers. In addition, more than two-thirds were 61 or older.

Milwaukee, for example, cited the poll worker shortage as a major reason it opened only five polling sites during the April primary, compared with its normal 180. In Maryland, local election officials reported in August that the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore City collectively were 14,000 poll workers short with less than three months to hire and train them. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ordered 1,800 precinct polling places and 80 early-voting centers consolidated into a few hundred, including high schools and other large venues where any registered voter in a county could vote. 

Election Assistance Commission Chairman Ben Hovland said his agency wants to educate people on the need. “Some people think the person working the polls is an employee. They don’t realize it’s a temporary worker for the day — essentially a volunteer.”

The job generally pays between $80 and $350 for the long day in most jurisdictions, Hovland said. And some officials are offering bonuses.

Sue Larson, the Democratic registrar in South Windsor (the town has two registrars, one for each party), said her town decided to increase by $100 the regular daily pay that ranges from $165 to $325, depending on experience and position.

“Because it’s corona and they are wearing PPE all day,” she said. “It’s a long day and they definitely deserve it.” As a result, a newbie like Stoker could make $265.

Larson said her precinct usually needs about 75 workers for a regular presidential election, but she is looking for about 100 this year, because of an anticipated increase in absentee ballots, requiring more counters, split between Democrats and Republicans. She’s got 26 so far.

Gabe Rosenberg, spokesman for Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, said there are 169 municipalities in the state and 750 polling places. Connecticut poll worker recruitment includes reaching out to the state Bar Association to sign up attorneys to work the polls “to help ensure democracy is able to function,” he said in a phone call.

The shortage of poll workers across the country has attracted the attention of actors and athletes who are mounting social media and personal donation campaigns to get people to sign up as poll workers. And some businesses, such as Old Navy, have offered employees a paid day off to work the polls.

Sept. 1 was National Poll Worker Recruitment Day and many secretaries of state tweeted about and publicized their efforts to gather poll workers. They were joined by celebrities such as NBA star LeBron James.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers education and consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.