Poll worker Amirun Nessa, seated right, assists voters in Brooklyn, NY. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Poll worker Amirun Nessa, seated right, assists voters in Brooklyn, NY. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Most poll workers are over the age of 60, but with the coronavirus pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, many long-time volunteers are questioning whether they can safely work this year.

Ruthe De la Rosa has volunteered as a poll worker in nearly every election for the past 20 years. She’s now 71. Her history of civic work is long and has been influenced, among other things, by her life as a single mother of two daughters. However, her age puts her in the high-risk category for COVID-19, and she will not be volunteering to work in the November election. 

De la Rosa is not alone. Elections experts warn that there may be a severe shortage of poll workers during the general election in November, which could result in the closure of polling places, longer lines to vote, and suppressed voter turnout. That has led to the creation of groups like Power the Polls, who put organizations like the AFL-CIO in touch with local election officials to staff polls. Elsewhere, some professional sports teams are training their staff to be poll workers at arenas that will be used for in-person voting this fall.

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However, many who regularly volunteer as poll workers consider it a civic duty. Without sufficient safety protocols in place, clear communication from officials, or a significant decrease in the spread of the coronavirus, though, many do not feel safe putting themselves in that situation this year—especially those who are over the age of 65. 

“I’ve been trying to help out as much as I can.”

De la Rosa, who lives in California, said she’s been involved in politics since the 1960s, including fighting for women’s rights and volunteering with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. As a single mother of two daughters, she said her personal experiences and upbringing influenced her political activism, including being unable to get an abortion when it was illegal and the inspiration she took from her grandmother, whom she described as a “trailblazer.”

“I’ve just been trying to help out as much as I can in politics, you know little by little,” De la Rosa said. “And everybody says it’s a lot of work to be a poll worker, which it is, but to me, it’s a civic duty, something I’m proud of doing. And it makes me feel like I’m showing other people, even at my age, we should all get involved.” 

Laura Schaible, a long-time volunteer with League of Women Voters who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, has similar feelings. After seeing a friend helping out at the polls last November, the 57-year-old felt inspired to sign up. Her first time working an election was in February for the state’s Democratic primary. 

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Even before the pandemic, the poll worker shortage is also why Sarah, a New York City resident who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy, first got involved. “I signed up to be a poll worker after the 2016 election because even in New York it was so chaotic, and the amount of people there just weren’t equipped to handle the volume of people coming in—it was just insane. And I thought, well maybe if I helped out too because I know technology, and I’m good with dealing with clients through my career, and I could be of some help. So I signed up and went for training.” 

How do you hold an election in a pandemic?

Poll workers know better than anyone how desperately polling places need volunteers. But the majority of volunteers are 61 and older, making poll work too risky.

Schaible said she had planned to work South Carolina’s Republican primary, but fears of contracting the virus deterred her. Although she is concerned about how the November election will be affected by a shortage of volunteers, she is not willing to risk her safety. “As somebody who’s 57, spending 12, 13 hours in a place with no ventilation—it’s like a cafeteria in the school—and millions of people coming in, I’m just not willing to put myself in that position.”

Living in Southern California, De la Rosa expressed similar feelings of worry. “I’m just kind of leary with everything going on, and I’m diabetic, which doesn’t help. And so I feel compromised, and I haven’t even gone out.”

While polling places and election officials have been instituting safety protocols and precautions, elections are run differently in every state in the country, and some are more organized and prepared than others. Sarah said one major concern she has is the lack of communication and clarity from officials. She hasn’t gotten clear answers on what safety precautions polling places are planning to take for the upcoming November election, including how it would handle social distancing.

“There [hasn’t been] any real communication as far as safety protocols, which is something that they could have done easily,” Sarah said. “There’s nothing through the website, and when I did speak to someone they said they were gonna have masks and sanitizers. I said, ‘Well what about social distancing?’ And I really couldn’t get any clarity on that.”

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A shortage of volunteers at the polls has been a problem for elections since at least the early 2000s, but the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. Volunteering as a poll worker is a significant time and energy commitment that offers little incentive and is an unrealistic possibility for many working adults. While poll workers are paid for their time, the amount usually falls between $100 and $200 for what is often a 12- or 13-hour shift, And because Election Day is on a Tuesday, not everyone is able to take the time off from work. This is one reason poll workers are so often retirees and older adults. 

Experts say the chaos of the primary elections in states like Georgia—where consolidation of polling locations, new voting machines and procedures, and issues with mail-in ballots caused significant barriers to voting including unfeasibly long lines and widespread confusion among voters and poll workers alike—should be a warning for November. Voter turnout will be greater, and fewer polling locations may be open. 

In all likelihood, polling locations and volunteers will be most lacking in areas with the least access to federal funding, mostly low-income areas and communities of color. Expanded access to vote-by-mail and early voting can ease the strain on polling places, but it may not be enough. 

“Ensuring that there are sufficient resources to ensure that in-person voting remains a viable and safe option for the voters who need it most,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, Deputy Director of the Voting Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. “I think that’s extraordinarily important.”

“Consolidating polling locations is increasing the lines and creates additional risks for voters who need to be able to vote in person for getting COVID. The sad truth of this, in addition, is that consolidation is happening in places where a lack of resources are probably most prevalent. 

“Where we would be particularly concerned about this,” she continued, “are places where you have large or growing numbers of minority voters. Unfortunately, those communities are being particularly devastated by COVID. And so you have these complements of really terrible things happening in communities that have always been under-resourced.” 

What is the alternative?

Lakin said one of the big pushes her group has been making is to reduce barriers to vote-by-mail, which would in turn reduce the volume of voters at polling locations on Election Day. Part of this effort includes advocating for solutions like ballot dropboxes, so people don’t have to rely on the Postal Service to return their ballots, and educating the public at large about all their voting options. 

Voting by mail or absentee voting remains one of the safest and most secure options for casting a ballot. Research indicates that voting by mail does not lead to widespread fraud or ballot harvesting, debunking claims made by President Donald Trump. 

In fact, vote-by-mail may be less vulnerable to fraud than in-person voting because it is a paper ballot with a tracking number that allows the voter to follow its progress after mailing.

“The more people who take advantage of these alternative ways of voting and dropping the ballots off and so forth, I think the better the whole system is going to be on Election Day,” Lakin said.

Learn how you can volunteer to be a poll worker here.