Pandemic leads to critical shortage of U.S. election workers

Eleanor Green, a 79-year-old from Baltimore, wasn’t planning to stay at home on Nov. 3.

She was prepared to wake up early on U.S. Election Day to help voters cast ballots by volunteering to work at the polls.

The pandemic changed all that.

“Look, with great reluctance, I said no,” Green says, “I just don’t think this is the year for me to do it.”

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Across the United States, local election officials are running into Green’s problem; the most reliable poll workers are often the people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. They’ve quit or retired en masse from their polling duties, fearing election day will expose them to the virus.

“Even if you’re just giving out ‘I voted’ stickers, you’re still in reasonably close contact with people,” says Green, describing the risks poll workers face. “Sitting in an enclosed space for that long, sometimes 13 hours with so many people coming and going, it just didn’t seem right.”

The sudden departure of so many poll workers has jeopardized in-person voting in an election that’s expected to draw record turnout.

Many local polling stations won’t open because there aren’t enough volunteers like Green to run them.

“In our world, that constitutes an unprecedented emergency,” says David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials. “We need about 40,000 election judges to hold the election. We saw about 15,000 of them drop out all at once.”

That means Election Day will look very different.

In Maryland, officials are now planning to use centralized polling stations, what Garreis calls “voting super-centers,” instead of staffing local precincts. For example, FedEx Field, the 80,000-seat stadium used by the Washington NFL team, will be one such voting venue in the November election.

By using a few large locations, officials are hoping to process voters faster with fewer staff, while allowing for COVID-19 precautions such as physical distancing.

“The biggest challenge has been educating everybody about all the changes,” Garreis says.

Maryland is also encouraging voters to use mail-in ballots where possible.

Of the 400,000 eligible voters in Anne Arundel County Maryland, Garreis estimates nearly half will vote by mail this year. “That’s the safest thing for people to do,” he says.

Despite President Donald Trump’s concerted efforts to undermine the legitimacy of mail-in voting, the practice is already widespread in Maryland.

Local officials insist instances of fraud are “minimal,” because voters who mail in a ballot are identified in the state’s electronic voter database, which prevents them from voting a second time in person. If they do try to challenge the system, they’re issued a provisional ballot, which is only counted if no mail-in ballot is found.

In fact, Garreis warns that anyone who follows President Trump’s suggestion to try to vote in person after voting by mail could find themselves referred to the State Prosecutor’s office.

Pandemic planning has also included a work-around for the ongoing problems at the United States Postal Service.

USPS has warned it may not be able to process a large volume of mail-in ballots due to budget cuts and service changes.

Maryland offers voters the option of hand delivering their ballots to one of dozens of specially marked drop boxes.

Garreis insists there’s little room for mischief there, because the boxes are emptied twice daily “by a pair of bipartisan staff,” involving one Republican and one Democrat.

For all the planning, the pandemic will have the final say.

“Obviously, no one knows what’s going to happen in September and October,” says Garreis, acknowledging fears of a second wave of the virus in the fall.

Maryland has put 400 backup election judges on standby just in case they’re needed.

For Garreis, the nightmare scenario is one in which the virus flares up again “and most of our judges decide to quit at once.”

As for Green, she believes the virus won’t be enough to keep voters from exercising their rights, even if she can’t be there to help them.

“They’re going to vote,” she says, “and that always gives you a very good feeling about the country and our democratic process in general.”

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