Election officials across the United States are grappling with potential poll worker shortages this year, spurred in part by coronavirus concerns among older Americans.
People age 60 and older serve as the backbone of U.S. elections, accounting for 58 percent of all poll workers in 2018, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
But the same group of Americans who make elections possible are also in high-risk categories for developing serious COVID-19 symptoms and complications.
The chances of developing severe illness from the virus increase with age, making older people especially vulnerable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People over the age of 65 account for eight out of 10 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S.
Health concerns may keep thousands of poll workers home this year, forcing election officials to make tough decisions and resolve critical vacancies less than 70 days before the presidential election.
Consequences of Poll Worker Shortages
A poll worker is really a generic term for any temporary election job. It includes everything from customer service and technical support to ballot counters and voting machine technicians.
Vacancies in November may cause long lines at the polls, reduce voting locations and delay election results.
Tommy Doyle is the supervisor of elections in Lee County, Florida. In April, his office sent availability emails to former poll workers to confirm who could serve again this year.
Doyle told RetireGuide that 1,000 people opted out.
“It forced us to close several voting locations for the August primaries,” Doyle said.
The county ultimately cut 31 polling sites — a 23 percent reduction.
Doyle noted that many people who declined to work are older. He described some as “star workers” with 15 to 20 years of experience.
Hiring a bunch of first-time workers is like training an army to fight a war a few days before battle.
That experience is extremely valuable to election officials. Losing institutional knowledge about how to troubleshoot challenges on Election Day can make training difficult and lead to confusion.
“Hiring a bunch of first-time workers is like training an army to fight a war a few days before battle,” said Doyle, who anticipates a record 90 percent voter turnout rate in his county come November.
The age of residents in Lee County — like many Florida counties — trends older. In 2018, the county’s median age was 48.8 years old — over 10 years higher than the national rate.
Administrators across the U.S. also worry about last-minute dropouts — especially if coronavirus cases surge again before November.
During the Michigan primary on Aug. 4, several polling sites delayed opening due to unexpected callouts, according to The Detroit News.
Similarly, Kentucky consolidated in-person voting in each county to a single polling place during its June primary. The total number of voting sites statewide dropped from 3,700 in previous years to fewer than 200.
Did You Know?
In 2018, more than two-thirds of jurisdictions said that it was either “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to obtain enough poll workers.
Doyle said he’s boosted his poll worker roster since emails went out in April and is pushing hard for Lee County residents to vote by mail.
Still, he anticipates lengthy wait times on Election Day.
“I’m telling voters who go to the polls to be patient,” he said. “The social distancing and cleaning procedures we had to put in place are going to cause some delays regardless.”
Efforts to Recruit New Poll Workers
Beyond government, advocacy groups and private corporations are stepping forward to help recruit new election workers before November.
One such effort is Power the Polls, a new grassroots network of nonpartisan voting rights groups and big-name corporate sponsors such as MTV, Comedy Central, Levi Strauss and Uber.
The campaign, which launched June 30, focuses on mobilizing healthy, low-risk and diverse election workers in November.
Its mission is ambitious: Inspire 250,000 Americans to sign up and help out in order to preserve democracy.
“While states across the country have rightly focused on extending absentee voting, there’s no doubt we will still need robust and well-staffed in-person voting options, especially for people with disabilities, those who need language assistance, or communities without reliable access to mail service,” Jessica Barba Brown, a Power the Polls partner and senior advisor for We Can Vote, stated in a news release.
On a state level, the Ohio Supreme Court passed a new rule in late July that offers continuing legal education credits to more than 49,000 licensed attorneys who volunteer on Election Day.
Likewise, Maryland’s Department of Budget and Management secretary is offering holiday pay and 16 hours of administrative leave for state employees who sign up as election workers. It’s an increase from the eight hours of paid leave offered in prior elections.
Some experts believe the financial component of poll working may also be a big motivator for struggling Americans as the country’s unemployment rate lingers in the double digits.
The average poll worker can earn roughly $120 to $350, and some say the temporary work may incentivize thousands to sign up for the first time.
Targeting Young People to Work the Polls
Because COVID-19 is statistically less threatening to young people, some election officials are asking them to help.
“We’re doing a lot of local outreach, talking with community groups about how they can get involved,” Craig Latimer, supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County, Florida, told RetireGuide. “We’re planning social media campaigns and traditional media outreach to talk about being a poll worker.”
Latimer said doing so has dropped the average age of poll workers in Hillsborough County from 66 to 61.
Efforts seem to be paying off.
“We are still recruiting for November and will be looking to have a good number of standby poll workers for that election,” Latimer said.
Meanwhile, some municipalities — such as San Diego County in California — offer special poll worker programs for high school and college students.
Young people who join can serve as clerks and earn $120 on Election Day.
Dmitri Singer, 16, signed up to work for the first time during the presidential primary on March 3 after learning about the program from a family friend.
Singer told RetireGuide that the opportunity was appealing because he earned 21 hours of community service for his work and his high school requires 40 hours to graduate.
The 16-year-old said he thinks it’s important for young people to help because they need to understand how the voting system works.
He’s also staying positive about November.
“If it’s advertised enough by schools or by other means, I’m sure that many people in my generation will be looking to work the polls for this coming election,” Singer said. “People my age seem willing to engage this year more than ever.”