COVID endangers the volunteers who make your vote count

Lost in the broader chaos of Georgia’s recent statewide election was a previously unreported incident that highlights a concern for every state planning for the November general election: Just 48 hours before Georgia’s June 9 election, a poll worker in Jackson County tested positive for COVID-19.

Emails obtained by USA TODAY show Jackson County elections supervisor Jennifer Logan told election board members that, on the advice of an election official in Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office, they were not required to tell the public anything.

The official’s argument was that “due to the continuing health crisis, everyone knows the risk that they take when they go out in public…and they are making that choice,” the email states.

Logan did not respond to written requests for comment, and it’s unclear whether other Jackson County poll workers were notified that one of their colleagues had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. In a statement, a Raffsenberger spokesman said counties had been advised only to make their own decisions after talking to health officials and their own legal counsel.

Employees and volunteers of the Franklin County Board of Elections sort through, and de-stub both mail in ballots and provisional ballots on April 28, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio on the final day of the the Primary Election. The election which was postponed on March 17, is almost exclusively mail in or absentee. The only residents allowed to vote in person are those who are disabled, have no permanent residence, or who requested a ballot by mail but never received it.
Employees and volunteers of the Franklin County Board of Elections sort through, and de-stub both mail in ballots and provisional ballots on April 28, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio on the final day of the the Primary Election. The election which was postponed on March 17, is almost exclusively mail in or absentee. The only residents allowed to vote in person are those who are disabled, have no permanent residence, or who requested a ballot by mail but never received it.

“At no point did anyone in the Secretary of State’s office tell any of the counties, Jackson County included, not to publicly discuss exposures to COVID-19 among their staff,” he wrote, adding that suggesting otherwise is “a mischaracterization of the genuine efforts of the Secretary of State’s office to help counties provide safe elections.”

COVID has the potential to disrupt Election Day with unexpectedly undermanned polling stations if infected poll workers can’t show up, or if healthy poll workers decide the risk of getting infected by voters is too great. The concern is underscored by the demographics of the nation’s Election Day poll workers: One in every four is 70 or older, according to federal Elections Assistance Commission data, and COVID-19 has proven to be especially deadly to the elderly.

The age of the poll worker in Jackson County was not revealed in the email. But Pete Fuller, the county’s Democratic Committee chair, said the positive test should have been revealed to protect other volunteers, many of whom were elderly.

“Had I known then that there was this level of closeness to a person with COVID, I would have waved some people off, because they were older,” said Fuller, who learned about the worker only after the election. “I am pretty upset.”

Erma Denney, a Republican election board member who said she was exposed to the virus, described the choice to keep silent “a worst case scenario. It was a major breach of trust.”  

Should older poll workers stay home, some precincts will simply close, creating longer lines at the remaining poll locations and potentially disenfranchising voters. That, in turn, can also push more voters into a single closed building, creating another COVID risk factor.

After Milwaukee poll workers dropped out before Wisconsin’s April 7 election, just five poll locations were left to handle more than 18,000 voters. Typically, the city has 180 locations available.

Micheal Singleton, second left, and his wife Gladys wait in line to vote continued a few blocks south of the polling location at Riverside High School, 1615 E. Locust St. in Milwaukee, along on North Bartlett Avenue near East Riverside Place on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The Wisconsin primary is moving forward in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic after Gov. Tony Evers sought to shut down Tuesday's election in a historic move Monday that was swiftly rejected by the conservative majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court by the end of the day.
Micheal Singleton, second left, and his wife Gladys wait in line to vote continued a few blocks south of the polling location at Riverside High School, 1615 E. Locust St. in Milwaukee, along on North Bartlett Avenue near East Riverside Place on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The Wisconsin primary is moving forward in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic after Gov. Tony Evers sought to shut down Tuesday’s election in a historic move Monday that was swiftly rejected by the conservative majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court by the end of the day.

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“One of the first questions that many people ask when they are considering being a poll worker is ‘What are the safety protocols that are going to be available at the polling place,'” said Rose Clouston, an operative with the Texas Democratic Party who leads their poll worker recruitment for upcoming July 14 primary runoffs.

Three election office workers in two other Georgia counties had previously tested positive for COVID. In Fulton County, where the average poll worker age is 70, the supervisor of elections was already struggling to hire hundreds of poll workers in April after one employee was hospitalized for COVID. Another – a 62-year-old – died of the virus.

In Palm Beach County, Florida, where federal data shows three of every 10 poll workers were over 70 in 2018, more than 700 poll workers dropped out two days before the March 17 election. In Nebraska, the National Guard was called out in May to help man short-staffed polls. 

The stakes are higher this November, when both parties are expected to escalate get-out-the-vote campaigns. Even with predicted increases in mail-in voting, millions of voters are expected to show up to the polls. Florida has offered the option of absentee voting for years, but roughly 30% of the state’s voters still go to the polls on election day, according to county elections officials. In Wisconsin, an estimated 80% of ballots were cast by mail in April, but people still stood in line for hours to cast a ballot in person.  

Kelsey Luker reads as she waits in line to vote, Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Atlanta. Luker said she had been in line for almost two hours.
Kelsey Luker reads as she waits in line to vote, Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Atlanta. Luker said she had been in line for almost two hours.

Local election officials across the country are only now recruiting for the November contest, so it’s not yet known whether orders of masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and other protective gear will keep older poll workers feeling safe enough to come back. 

“I am not at all comfortable yet,” said Gary Scott, director of elections in Fairfax County Virginia. Presidential elections require many more workers than the spring and summer elections, he noted.

Additionally, when poll workers pulled out of elections in Florida, Illinois and Arizona in mid-March, only 17 Americans had died from COVID, according to the World Health Organization. In the three months since then, more than 112,000 have died, and in millions of households, masks, quarantine and contagion risk are frequent conversations.

Florida’s League of Women Voters had cautioned earlier this year that its usual army of poll workers should consider sitting out the November election if they are 65 or older, or if they have a preexisting condition. The organization is now working with a physician member to draw up safety guidelines for those who still want to work the polls.

“Ultimately our members will have to decide for themselves,” said Patti Brigham, president of the Florida League. “We have many, many passionate members who work every election cycle. However, these are unusual times.”

Poll worker Jeremy Block, center, directs 88 year-old Mort Winsberg to a voting booth at Leon County, Florida precinct 5105 during the Florida primary on March 17, 2020 in Tallahassee, United States. When asked about his fears of contracting the coronavirus Winsberg responded, "I'm so close to death it doesn't matter". People are heading to the polls to vote for their Republican and Democratic choice in their parties respective primaries during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Poll worker Jeremy Block, center, directs 88 year-old Mort Winsberg to a voting booth at Leon County, Florida precinct 5105 during the Florida primary on March 17, 2020 in Tallahassee, United States. When asked about his fears of contracting the coronavirus Winsberg responded, “I’m so close to death it doesn’t matter”. People are heading to the polls to vote for their Republican and Democratic choice in their parties respective primaries during the COVID-19 outbreak.

‘They are very patriotic. And they want that spot’

Poll workers over the age of 60 have for years been a boon to the elections officials needing people to man polling locations.  People in their 60s, 70s, 80s and older make up more than half of Election Day poll workers in the District of Columbia and 31 states submitting poll workers’ ages to the federal Elections Assistance Commission. 

“We have poll workers in their eighties and even nineties,” said Jamie Snider, director of Ohio’s Perry County Board Of Elections. “They are very patriotic. And they want that spot.”

There’s a reason the poll worker age skews gray. People in their 30s and 40s are more likely to have job or child care responsibilities, which makes it more difficult to commit to a 14 to 16 hour work day.

“A lot of seniors have more flexibility in their schedules,” said Miami-Dade County Florida Deputy Supervisor of Elections Suzy Trutie. “You could be looking at a two- to three-week commitment.”

Even before COVID’s appearance, recruiting poll workers was a perennial challenge, and age a key concern. In Big Horn County, Wyoming, long time workers “are getting too old to work or have died,” an election official wrote in a 2018 report to the Elections Assistance Commission.

In Nebraska, where 86% of Perkins County poll workers were over 60 in the 2018 midterms, an official wrote that replacing scarce poll workers was a “nerve-wracking” process. In Adams County, an elections official warned that poll workers over 85 had two years earlier said they would bow out before 2020. And Nuckolls County loses some of their mostly older poll workers every year to health problems or death, said Carrie J. Miller, the Nebraska County’s election commissioner.

It was already a struggle to keep 50 poll workers, said Miller, but the threat of COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem. “We really started seeing them drop out,” she said.

A polling place worker uses gloves outside of the Boca Raton Library during the Florida primary election, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Boca Raton, Fla. As Florida officials try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the state's voters headed to the polls to cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary.
A polling place worker uses gloves outside of the Boca Raton Library during the Florida primary election, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Boca Raton, Fla. As Florida officials try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the state’s voters headed to the polls to cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary.

Nationally, 562 county election officials  from Monterey, California to Providence, Rhode Island reported to the federal elections agency that it was already “very difficult” to get poll workers in 2018. By contrast, only about 149 reported it was “very easy.”

Spending on safety measures

Elections officials are in some cases shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars and wiping out budgets in an effort to keep voters and poll workers safe.

The same safety measures protect both, but poll workers have greater exposure: In certain cases, one poll worker can come into contact with 1,000 voters, said Scott Jarrett, Director of Elections Day and Emergency Voting in Maricopa County, Arizona.  

Some officials have decided to lease large commercial spaces for polling places. That accommodates social distancing, but costs are in “the hundreds of thousands” of dollars, Jarrett said. Florida’s Orange County Supervisor of Elections, Bill Cowles, has spent $103,000 on plexiglass shields for poll workers and another $45,000 on gloves, masks and wipes.

A polling place worker adjusts gloves as she tends to a reception table during the Florida primary election at the First United Methodist Church, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Jupiter, Fla. As Florida officials try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the state's voters headed to the polls to cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary.
A polling place worker adjusts gloves as she tends to a reception table during the Florida primary election at the First United Methodist Church, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Jupiter, Fla. As Florida officials try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the state’s voters headed to the polls to cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary.

“I stopped worrying about how much money I was going to spend a while ago,” Fairfax County’s Scott said.

Smaller counties are scrambling for supplies, too. Just before Ohio postponed its March election, Portage County elections officials had been fielding “lots and lots and lots of people calling” to say they didn’t feel safe to work at the polls, said Theresa Nielsen, Deputy Director of the Board of Elections.

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There were no masks, gloves or other protective equipment to offer them, she said. Determined not to let that happen this November, the office has been stockpiling, though prices are high and supplies scarce. They scored hand sanitizer only because an elections official happened to go shopping the day a shipment arrived.

In Texas, Travis County poll workers – whose age tends to average about 68 – will be issued masks and sit behind sneeze guards to minimize physical contact with voters as they sign required forms. Voters will have access to hand sanitizer and will be given a disposable stick that looks like a tongue depressor to mark their votes on the voting machine’s touchscreen.

The county is spending upward of $1 million on maximizing safety, said Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. She added that they will ensure that voters do their part to keep the poll workers safe.

“I’m asking everybody who comes into a polling place to wear a mask,” DeBeauvoir said. “It won’t cost you your vote if you don’t wear a mask. But, boy, are we going to put you far away from everybody else.”

Cautious optimism in Texas, Florida

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and statewide elected Republicans like Attorney General Ken Paxton have resisted efforts to expand Texas’ vote-by-mail options, underlining the need for enough poll workers to handle in-person voting.  In Travis County, for instance, DeBeauvoir estimates she will need 2,000 workers.

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DeBeauvoir and other party and election officials say recruiting is going well. Texas Republican Party chairman James Dickey said the state would “absolutely” have enough workers in the 100 of Texas’ 254 counties with upcoming GOP runoffs.

Clouston, the Texas Democratic Party poll worker recruiter, said people are stepping up. “We are seeing that folks recognize the need and want to help their community and want to be active in this moment,” Clouston said.

A voter walks to the poll to cast their ballot during the presidential primary in Houston, Texas on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Thirteen states and American Samoa are holding presidential primary elections, with over 1400 delegates at stake. Americans vote Tuesday in primaries that play a major role in who will challenge Donald Trump for the presidency, a day after key endorsements dramatically boosted Joe Biden's hopes against surging leftist Bernie Sanders. The backing of Biden by three of his ex-rivals marked an unprecedented turn in a fractured, often bitter campaign.
A voter walks to the poll to cast their ballot during the presidential primary in Houston, Texas on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Thirteen states and American Samoa are holding presidential primary elections, with over 1400 delegates at stake. Americans vote Tuesday in primaries that play a major role in who will challenge Donald Trump for the presidency, a day after key endorsements dramatically boosted Joe Biden’s hopes against surging leftist Bernie Sanders. The backing of Biden by three of his ex-rivals marked an unprecedented turn in a fractured, often bitter campaign.

In the small Florida town of Windermere, long-time poll clerk Karen Fay and her veteran cadre of a half-dozen poll workers expect to show up this November at the white wooden town hall, where voters have been known to fill out their ballots sitting in a back porch rocking chair.

“It’s such a small town,” said Fay, who has been a supervising poll clerk since 1976. “We love to see all our neighbors.”

In Highlands County, also in Florida, Supervisor of Elections Penny Ogg said she had no major March election cancellations from her poll workers, half of whom were over 70 in 2018. And she’s not expecting problems recruiting in November.  

“We have already seen an increase in requests,” Ogg said. 

Still, she said, “People will change their mind at the last minute. It all depends on what is going in in the world when elections come around.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Election workers often higher age, at risk