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Vaccinated and ready, poll workers are back for Virginia’s governor race

By Karina Elwood | Washington Post, October 27, 2021

As chief election officer of a Fairfax County election precinct, Beth Tudan was a constant presence at the polls last year. She was there when some of her fellow poll workers chose to stay home out of fear for their health during the coronavirus pandemic, and she was there to welcome the new faces who stepped up to fill their places.

And Tudan, 56, will be there again Tuesday, leading a team of 11 poll workers — some returning after taking last year off — as they guide voters through Virginia’s statewide election.

Election officials and outreach organizations said Virginia’s precincts are well-staffed ahead of this year’s tight gubernatorial race between Democratic former governor Terry McAuliffe and Republican former private equity executive Glenn Youngkin.

Many said they believe the interest in working at the polls this year carried over from last year’s massive outreach efforts to fill gaps left by vulnerable seniors — a group that traditionally makes up many poll workers — who decided to stay home during the pandemic. And many are returning despite other obstacles posed in last year’s election — including unproven claims of election fraud that led some poll workers to say they felt vulnerable or disheartened as they tended to the polls.

Election officers in Virginia are set and assigned by each locality to run the polls on Election Day. Officers are trained and serve roles like greeting guests, checking in voters and monitoring the vote-counting machines. Some receive a small payment for the day, while others work on a volunteer basis.

Deb Wake, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, said she hasn’t heard the same anxieties about staffing the polls this year, now that coronavirus vaccines are available and new poll workers who came aboard last year are staying engaged.

Alexandria Bratton, program manager at the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, agreed.

“Folks were excited to let us know that they were vaccinated and ready to get back to work,” Bratton said. “It’s incredible to hear how excited they are to be involved in any way, shape or form.”

In Henrico County, the election registrar’s office has seen an uptick in poll workers since the summer, Mark Coakley, director of elections, said in an email. More than half of the roughly 1,100 poll workers signed up to staff the election in Henrico are over age 60. Coakley said he believes the increase is a result of local parties and organizations recruiting people who are interested in getting engaged after the 2020 election.

Nancy Turaj had been working elections in Fairfax County since her retirement about 10 years ago, until last year — when she decided being at the polls during the pandemic would be too risky. At 80, she knew she was especially vulnerable to the virus.

“I was just too scared to do it,” Turaj said.

She missed getting to see her neighbors and friends come to the precinct. She loved meeting new voters as they cast their first ballots. In 2020, she settled instead for a photo of her granddaughter beaming with her first “I voted” sticker.

Now fully vaccinated, Turaj said she was excited to return to the polls in June for the Democratic primary, and she’ll be back at South Lakes High School in Reston on Tuesday.

“As an election officer, you believe in the process, and you believe what you’re doing is a worthwhile civic duty,” Turaj said.

Last year’s election also posed a number of obstacles for poll workers, as tensions heightened over President Donald Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud. Some poll workers said they felt vulnerable in their roles, or were disheartened by baseless claims that they felt undermined the election process they witnessed firsthand.

Turaj said she was happy she had sat the 2020 election out after she heard stories of voter intimidation at the polls in other parts of the country.

“Even without the pandemic, I was scared of Trump supporters and what they were saying,” Turaj said about claims of voter fraud. No election fraud was found in Virginia.

Bob Brandon, president and CEO of the Fair Elections Center, a nonpartisan voting rights group, said some officials around the country faced backlash following claims of fraud — especially during recounts.

“The ‘big lie’ has really taken its toll on people who are just trying to do their public service job,” Brandon said, referring to Trump’s fraud claims. “We’re really going to encourage people that this is the time for them to protect this democracy.”

Jyoti Minocha worked at the polls for the first time in 2020 because she said she thought the stakes were higher. The experience, she said, energized her to be more engaged than she had been in the past.

“I felt it was important to actually be out there, and be on the front lines,” Minocha said. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

She said she was too busy to work at the polls this year, but she loved her experience. She said it was so smooth and transparent that she’s found it disheartening to hear claims that the election results were inaccurate.

“It really showed me how the process worked,” Minocha said. “And it worked well.”

Wake, of the League of Women Voters, said she encourages anyone with questions about the process to become a poll watcher and see the election process firsthand.

“I want to stress how well-trained our volunteers are. The checks and balances there are inherent in the system,” Wake said. “People can feel confident in the elections.”

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