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Wanted: Poll workers able to brave the pandemic

By Elaine S. Povich, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON - 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.

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