By Editorial Board | July 29, 2020
With fewer than 100 days until the November election, officials are scrambling to figure out how to safely conduct an election during a public health crisis. At this point, several key issues are largely the province of government officials, such as ensuring that ballots are sent to voters in a timely manner and implementing hygiene protocols at polling locations. But ordinary Americans can address a major issue: a shortage of poll workers. This fall, young, healthy people should step forward to relieve the country’s mostly older poll workers from exposure to the novel coronavirus.
While a record number of votes are likely to be cast by mail this year, polling locations will remain open across the country. That’s needed to accommodate those for whom mail-in ballots are not a good option, such as voters without reliable mail access or those who require assistance to vote.
U.S. elections rely heavily on seniors — the majority of poll workers are 61 and over, with roughly a quarter over the age of 70. With seniors at higher risk for severe illness from the coronavirus and the strong possibility that November will find the country in the middle of a second wave, experts predict that droves of older poll workers will be unwilling to work on Election Day.
Already this year, officials in Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky and elsewhere struggled to recruit enough poll workers for primary elections. In Anchorage, 95 percent of usual poll workers declined to participate in a municipal election this year. Even before the pandemic, roughly two-thirds of all jurisdictions reported finding it “very or somewhat difficult” to recruit enough poll workers. The logistical challenges of implementing virus safeguards — new sanitation and distancing protocols, at the very least — mean that more poll workers are needed precisely as that traditional workforce has excellent reason to sit this year out.
Many jurisdictions are planning to reduce the number of polling locations available in anticipation of staffing shortages. That could mean longer lines, effectively disenfranchising those who can’t afford to wait to vote. Earlier this year in Wisconsin, National Guard members were mobilized to work the polls in the face of a statewide shortage of 7,000 poll workers. Still, the state had to reduce the number of polling locations — Milwaukee alone reduced polling centers from 180 to five.
Deploying plainclothes National Guard members might be a reasonable option for some jurisdictions this fall, but a better solution — and one with positive, long-lasting effects — would be for younger Americans to serve as poll workers in record numbers. Those who are able to take off work, or who are otherwise available, should step forward. The qualifications vary by jurisdiction, but the nonpartisan Work Elections project has gathered the relevant information to make it easy for new applicants. In a period with very few bright spots, one legacy of this year’s poll worker crunch should be an influx of young people that leaves the election workforce healthier and more sustainable for years to come.
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