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Help wanted: Florida poll workers to brave the coronavirus

By Allison Ross, Tampa Bay Times | July 30, 2020

Shirley Anderson realized six weeks ago that there was just no way she could open all her polling places for the August primary.

Too many of Hernando County’s experienced poll workers had dropped out over fears about the coronavirus. Too few were available to step up and replace them.

So Anderson, the county’s elections supervisor, opted to close five polling sites for the August primary, sending voters who usually use those locations to other polling places.

Some of those changes will stay in place for November’s general election. Others are hopefully temporary, she said.

“Unfortunately, this is the world we’re living in now,” Anderson said, saying her search for people to work polling sites continues. “This will be an ongoing issue for November. There will be more poll closures and movement.”

Even before the coronavirus, many parts of the country faced a scarcity of willing poll workers. Now, concerns about contagion have sidelined some longtime workers and discouraged others from signing up.

Poll workers help voters navigate the polls, including the use of voting equipment. That means they help determine whether in-person voting goes smoothly or whether there are lines and confusion.

In Georgia’s June primary, insufficient training for poll workers, including some working the polls for the first time, was partly blamed for the disarray and long lines at some sites. Earlier, Wisconsin’s April primary was marked by a slew of polling place closures due to a lack of poll workers. In Milwaukee, polling places dropped from 180 to just five.

During Florida’s own March presidential preference primary — which came just days after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic — some counties saw large numbers of poll workers cancel at the last minute. At least one county saw polling locations that opened hours late when poll workers didn’t show up.

Officials say they understand the difficult choices that poll workers must make but say they’ve lost people with valuable experience heading into the critical 2020 election season.

Daniel Gelbert Flannery, 78, of St. Petersburg, has worked the polls two other times. But he made the decision to sit out working the 2020 elections because of how he saw the coronavirus unfold. To him, the health risk of being in such close contact with voters all day is too great.

“I may be old but I’m not a fool,” Flannery said.

Poll workers tend to be older, putting them in a category that’s at higher risk for serious complications from the coronavirus. A Pew Research Center analysis found that 58 percent of U.S. poll workers were 61 or older in the 2018 midterm elections.

Elections officials and third-party groups have been working to recruit more poll workers amid the pandemic. Some are suggesting that young people can fill up the ranks.

In June, a group of organizations including Comedy Central, Patagonia, Uber, the Fair Elections Center and the Boys & Girls Club of America launched an effort, called Power the Polls, to recruit hundreds of thousands of Americans.

“We’ve seen what happens when poll workers don’t show up for fear of the coronavirus,” said Scott Duncombe, co-director of Power the Polls. He said his group had about 45,000 signups in its first few weeks, including in Florida.

Young people are targeted by Power the Polls. The Daily Show host Trevor Noah is promoting its message, which includes encouraging a sense of civic duty and reminding people that many poll workers get paid.

Duncombe said young people are often more tech-adept, a bonus for elections, which rely heavily on technology.

He said his group is working with companies, labor unions and others to encourage staff and members to step up as poll workers. It has launched a database where people can find information about becoming a poll worker in their area.

The push for younger poll workers is something Brian England, 64, wants.

He has been a poll worker for years and he’s planning to work again in August and November.

During the March presidential primary, England said about half of the workers at his polling site in Pinellas County didn’t show up. He said they were all older workers.

Diminished staffing didn’t cause any problems, given the light turnout, England said. And he understands the reluctance to work amid the coronavirus. But he worries that the presidential general election could be different.

“I can’t help thinking about November,” England said. “We need more young people to step up.”

Some counties say they’ve had quite a few residents volunteer after the need for workers became clear.

“It’s actually going very well. Almost too well, to the point where we can’t keep up with it,” said TJ Pyche, spokesman for the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office.

The county, the home for the University of Florida, has seen the number of young people signing up to work outpace previous elections. Since June 1, more than half of the people signing up to be poll workers were under the age of 40, Pyche said.

“Perhaps they realize they’re less at risk,” Pyche said. “And they may have more time than they have had in the past.”

Safi Chalfin-Smith, 18, will be one of Alachua County’s new poll workers in August.

She turned 18 in April and has never voted, but said she felt it was important for people like her to help the 2020 elections run smoothly.

Chalfin-Smith — who is the daughter of voting expert and UF political science professor Daniel Smith — said she’s already been trained to work the primary, and said a couple of her friends are planning to work, as well.

“I kept reading all this stuff that all these poll workers are dropping out and they’re 75 years old and they’re afraid of getting COVID,” she said. She pointed out that she is able-bodied and that her summer job had been canceled due to the coronavirus. “I’m exactly who they’re looking for.”

In Hillsborough County, news about shortages of poll workers in other parts of the country prompted Elizabeth Strom, 61, to apply to work the November general election.

Strom, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, said she felt comfortable signing up because she is healthy, can work from home and has few family responsibilities because her son is grown.

“If not me, then who?” Strom said. “I feel I should be able to do this to make sure we can have an election.”

Recognizing concerns from supervisors of elections and others about a shortage of poll workers this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis in June offered state employees two full days of administrative leave if they serve as poll workers in their home counties. He also encouraged school district employees and others to serve as poll workers.

Supervisors of elections offices have spent the last few months shoring up their poll worker numbers and adding to reserves in case some drop out at the last minute. Some are working with local organizations and other county agencies to recruit workers, and they’re promoting the health safeguards they’ve put in place at in-person voting sites.

In Hernando County, Supervisor Anderson said she’s hopeful that a new civic leave policy the county just passed that allows county employees to request paid leave to work at polling places will help for the November election.

Her biggest concern with poll workers, though, is making sure there are experienced people at each site. She’s got a lot of first-time people working as assistant clerks for the August primary, and is hopeful many will come back in November.

“Anyone who wants to work the front lines of democracy, our doors are always open,” Anderson said.

How to become a poll worker

In Florida, poll workers are recruited by each county, and the amount of pay, training and other details may vary by county. Here are some basics; contact the supervisor of elections office in your county for more information.

What are the requirements to become a poll worker?

Poll workers must be registered (or pre-registered) voters in the county in which they want to work and must be able to read and write in English. They must be able to work at the polling location the entire time.

Will I be paid?

Yes. The rate of compensation depends on the county as well as on the position.

Do I need to attend training?

Yes, Florida law requires poll workers to receive at least two hours of training and maybe more depending on the position. Some counties have higher training requirements. Compensation may be available for training.

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