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Risk of COVID Might Keep Poll Workers Home

In Texas, as in most of the country, seniors provide the lion share of labor for polling locations. The COVID pandemic and the lack of a comprehensive plan for reopening the state, means that many of our poll workers just might choose to stay home instead of opting to serve their communities on Election Day in November. The lack of available (and willing) staff means that counties across the state, including Dallas County may have to close voting centers. That in turn could mean longer lines at the this year’s polls.

“I’m almost 66 years old. I’m really concerned about COVID. … You’d be enclosed in a room all day, and it’s a long day. It’s a 14-hour day.”

Ruth Klein, Dallas County Election Worker

But it didn’t have to be this way. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Texas has had several opportunities to mitigate the effects of the Coronavirus. Gov. Abbott declared a statewide emergency on March 13th and waited until March 31st to close schools and shut the state down but never declared a mask mandate despite CDC evidence that showed it slowed the transmission of the virus. Once businesses started to reopen in mid-April, cases in Texas increased and it wasn’t until July 2nd that a statewide mail mandate was announced. Now Texas families are sending their children back to school (or not) with little guidance on what the rest of the year might look like, unemployment is at an all time high and there is no end in sight.

There is no argument, from either side of the aisle, this election is one of the most important to face Texas. Hopefully, the lack of leadership on the Coronavirus response, won’t be a death sentence to those who are most willing to facilitate at the polls.

For more on the shortage of poll workers in Dallas County, read the following Dallas Morning News story.

National shortage in poll workers could affect Dallas elections

Elections officials struggle to spread the vote without spreading the virus

Voters were instructed to please wear their masks at a Democratic primary polling place during the state's first election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Voters were instructed to please wear their masks at a Democratic primary polling place during the state’s first election during the COVID-19 pandemic.(Michael Hamtil / Staff photographer)

By Elizabeth Thompson

9:54 AM on Sep 1, 2020

Seniors aren’t just the most dependable voters. They’re also the cogs who make elections run.

In Dallas County, an estimated 85% election workers typically come from the 65-and-up set. And in the age of COVID-19, that’s a problem. These stalwarts who have spent long Election Days checking IDs and handing out ballots are staying away in droves.

Without enough poll workers, election departments across Texas may have no choice but to close voting sites, as they did for the July Democratic primary runoff. At some polling stations, no one who had hit retirement age stepped up to work the polls, leaving election officials scrambling.

Dallas County typically has over 750 polling sites for a presidential election, staffed by thousands of poll workers. There were 178,217 election precincts nationwide on Election Day in 2016, with an average of 7.8 poll workers per location, according to the Election Administration and Voting Survey. This year, Dallas County plans to have 469 polling sites.

A shortage in November could mean long lines for voters — a problem made worse by the fact that many churches and fire stations that ordinarily serve as polling sites are off the table for fear of health risks.

“I’m almost 66 years old,” said Ruth Klein, a Dallas volunteer for the League of Women Voters who has worked elections since 2016. “I’m really concerned about COVID. … You’d be enclosed in a room all day, and it’s a long day. It’s a 14-hour day.”

People 65 and older account for 8 out of 10 fatalities from COVID-19 in the United States, according to the CDC.

The problem is nationwide.

Pinellas County poll worker Jeanne Coffey wears a protective shield as she works the front door at the Coliseum Ball Room during the state's primary election in Florida.
Pinellas County poll worker Jeanne Coffey wears a protective shield as she works the front door at the Coliseum Ball Room during the state’s primary election in Florida.(SCOTT KEELER)

Maryland, for instance, has consolidated polling sites because of shortages of poll workers and locations, and counties across the country have considered the same approach.

Unlike Maryland, Texas is one of six states that restrict eligibility for mail-in ballots, and even with an extended early voting window, large numbers of voters are expected to show up on Election Day.

At 59, Courtney Davis, another LWV volunteer in Dallas, skipped the July 14 primary runoff for fear of contracting the coronavirus. But she does plan to work the November election because she’s even more worried there won’t be enough poll workers.

It’s a sacrifice, and to mitigate the risk she has a plan for a self-quarantine during early voting and through Election Day.

“For three weeks, my husband is going to move to a different room, and we’re just going to be really careful,” Davis said. “We haven’t gone out to dinner, we’re just laying low. This thing is big.”

Concerns at the polls

Dallas County elections administrator Toni Pippins-Poole said making sure there are enough poll workers this fall is “very much a concern at this time.” The department has spent weeks recruiting poll workers appointed to be election judges, but some have declined because they are 60 plus, she said.

Election judges are appointed by the Democratic or Republican party, depending on which side won the governor’s race in that precinct during the last election, to administer the polling sites. Other poll workers, like election clerks, help the election judge with assisting voters, setting up and opening and closing poll locations.

“We are relying a lot on our colleges and also on our high school students to work as poll workers,” Pippins-Poole said. “We do have a group of about 800 that we’re contacting as we speak to see if they are still available, as they have been in the past.”

Dallas County had 194 fewer voting centers than planned in the July runoff.

At the time, Pippins-Poole said 70 to 80 election judges didn’t show up for fear of voters not wearing masks.

Gov. Greg Abbott exempted “any person who is voting, assisting a voter, serving as a poll watcher, or actively administering an election” in his statewide mask mandate, so voters are not required by the state to wear masks. At this time, Abbott has not made any changes to the mandate, which was issued July 2.

Poll workers who did show up for the July runoffs were pleasantly surprised by the protective gear supplied by Dallas County, and the widespread use of masks by voters, said one poll worker, Steven Marlin.

A table at an early voting site in a state office building in Juneau, Alaska.
A table at an early voting site in a state office building in Juneau, Alaska.(Becky Bohrer)

“You can have an election with very few voters,” said Robert Stein, professor of political science at Rice University. “You cannot have an election with very few poll workers.”

Poll workers are not the only ones whose concerns about the pandemic could impact voters on Election Day.

Some facilities no longer want to host voters for fear of the virus.

A dozen Dallas County churches that have served as polling sites in past elections have declined to sign up for November, citing concerns that large numbers of voters will bring contagion to their congregations and employees.

“We’re having a lot of issues with churches,” Pippins-Poole said.

Fire stations may also be a problem — not because they’re unwilling, but because they have so much traffic coming in and out due to the pandemic, making them potentially unsafe for healthy voters.

“I don’t know about November,” said Tim Sexton, a Democratic election judge in East Dallas. “People are still kind of monitoring the numbers in Dallas for the virus, and if the numbers are continuing to be like they have been for the past couple weeks, I probably won’t have any older folks then either.”

A new hope: young voters

With some regular polling sites out of the picture, the elections department will use schools, libraries and city halls instead.

But as schools reopen, they have been the epicenters for coronavirus clusters around the country. A Georgia school was forced to quarantine 1,193 after an outbreak across the Cherokee County School District, and outbreaks at universities nationwide have caused them to go online after as little as one week of class.

North Texas still has a high infection rate, and estimates based on disease research at UT-Austin predicted that at a 500-person Dallas County school, five people are expected to arrive infected, but no one knows what the coronavirus numbers will look like in November.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University are unsure whether a second wave will hit in the fall, or how bad it might be. The CDC says it is likely that the seasonal flu and the coronavirus will both be spreading during the fall and winter.

Tarrant County elections administrator Heider Garcia said schools are public property that the elections department has a right to use as polling sites. If a concern comes up, the school will have to work with the elections department to put together a plan.

Voting rights advocates are concerned about last-minute changes that leave voters confused, inconvenienced and deterred.

Any changes need to be communicated quickly, said Charlie Bonner, communications director for Move Texas, a nonpartisan group dedicated to increasing participation in local elections for young voters.

“If you’re a young person who has worked through this complicated system enough to get up and get to that polling place,” Bonner said, “and then it’s not even open, that is putting an incredible impediment to that first-time voter or new voter.”

A polling place sign outside a Collin County Early Voting Location at Carpenter Park Recreation Center in Plano.
A polling place sign outside a Collin County Early Voting Location at Carpenter Park Recreation Center in Plano.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

Move Texas is working with elections departments across the state to increase awareness of changing polling sites, and is rolling out a recruitment program for younger poll workers in September.

During the runoff, Sexton said young poll workers were a lifeline when older workers backed out, and high school students from the student election worker program have been a great resource for him in the past.

“I sure hope that the numbers are down by November because that would help,” Sexton said, “but if they’re not, we’re going to have a bunch of young people at the polls, which is fine with me because they’re good workers.”

The Dallas elections department is working on making sure the polls are as hygienic as possible, and they are looking to recruit younger voters to work the election through the local Republican and Democratic parties.

Last week, the Dallas County Republican Party announced it had submitted a record 550 election judges to the elections department.

Carol Donovan, the county Democratic chair, said recruiting has been “tough,” and the primary showed the need for extras when workers inevitably back out.

Elections departments across the country are coming up with creative solutions to prevent shortages.

In a press call Tuesday hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, Sherry Poland, director of elections for Hamilton County in Ohio said her department has prepared Zoom presentations to recruit high school students and partnered with local businesses to give employees a day off with pay to work polls.

To combat a hectic Election Day, poll workers recommend voting by mail, if possible, and voting early, especially since early voting has been extended to start on October 13, instead of October 19.

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