They greet voters at the door, check off their names, and make sure their ballots get inserted correctly into counting machines. Poll workers are the “unsung heroes of the democratic process,” in the words of U.S. Election Assistance Commission Chairman Ben Hovland.
This year, however, with concerns very real about spreading the coronavirus, especially inside enclosed spaces like voting centers, there’s a needling worry there won’t be enough election workers on Nov. 3. National Poll Workers Recruitment Day Tuesday has been designated to spotlight the challenge and to send a message to prospective but apprehensive poll workers that yes, they can help out and still be safe.
“One of the big blinking lights (in) any election is, ‘OK, do we have that covered? Do we have election judges?’ Because we need 30,000 of them (in Minnesota), basically, for a general election,” Secretary of State Steve Simon said in an exclusive interview last week with the News Tribune Opinion page. “Duluth is one of those (places) who I think is pretty open about the fact that, ‘Hey, yeah, we could use more people.’ … We definitely have a need, and Duluth in particular has a need.”
Minnesota met that need for the August primary, but fewer poll workers are hired in primaries due to lower voter turnouts. Nonetheless, safety guidelines put in place then will carry over to Election Day, much of it buoyed by $8.3 million the state received from the federal government to ensure safety in Election 2020. The precautions can be reassuring to prospective poll workers, including face coverings and even face shields for workers and voters alike, distancing requirements for voters waiting in line, the constant disinfecting and wiping down of surfaces and even pens, and foot traffic flow patterns that minimize brushing past each other.
Also, due to the pandemic, fewer voters will be using Minnesota’s 3,000 polling places on Nov. 3. A record one-third or more of eligible voters in Minnesota are expected to vote absentee this election, according to Simon.
“We’re doing our best to make it as safe as possible,” he said.
Poll workers can be as young as 16. Those over 18 can serve wherever they’re needed, even outside their own communities. And poll workers get paid in Minnesota, including for their two hours of training. How much they get paid varies from city to city or county to county and can range from $12 to almost $20 per hour, Simon said. Some cities and counties in the state are using their federal elections funds to pay poll workers a little more. Working at a polling place doesn’t affect anyone’s unemployment status.
Unlike elections past, the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office is assisting localities like Duluth recruit and hire poll workers, a reflection of the challenge this year in finding enough people. Civic groups are being contacted. Large employers are being tapped to ask their employees to step up. You may even notice some advertising.
Anyone interested in being a poll worker can contact their local city clerk’s office or can go to the Secretary of State’s mnvotes.org site to fill out an intake form.
Minnesota isn’t alone in this challenge. A shortage of poll workers this year is “critical” nationally, according to the Election Assistance Commission (online at eac.gov or HelpAmericaVote.gov). A big reason is that poll workers are traditionally older and are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“Recruiting poll workers is a challenge for many election officials across the country, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made this need even more critical,” the commission’s Hovland said. “We encourage Americans who are able and willing to serve to sign up to help America vote.”
Simon is confident, he said, that in Minnesota, enough poll workers will be found.
“We’ll find a way. I’m optimistic that we’ll find a way, but we’ve got to work at it,” he said. “We’ve got to work with partners in the cities and counties to make sure they have what they need to get those people.”
Tuesday’s National Poll Workers Recruitment Day can help draw attention to this need.