En español | Bobbi Bowman, Susan Fadness and Diane Roberts aren't going to let a pandemic keep them from what they say is their patriotic and civic duty: working at their local polling places to help friends and neighbors cast their ballots.
They are among the more than 1 million Americans across the country needed to sign in voters, check their identification, in some states, and help voters navigate the election process. And in 2020, helpers are being asked to do even more: wipe down voting machines, remind people to social distance and in some states help process the unprecedented number of absentee ballots that have already been cast.
"I feel like it is my civic duty to do this,” said Bowman, 74, a retired journalist who lives in Northern Virginia and who has been a poll worker since 2012. “This is an election in which we have to save our country and I decided my contribution is going to be working on Election Day."
The majority of people who traditionally work at the polls are older Americans, especially those who are retired and don't have to take time off from work to perform this civic duty. In 2018, 83 percent of people working the polls were over age 40, with 31 percent ages 61 to 70 and 27 percent age 71 and older, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
COVID-19 fears prevented Fadness, a 70-year-old retired hospital social worker, from working at the polls during Wisconsin's April and August primaries. “There were so many unknowns about the coronavirus at that time,” said Fadness, who has worked the polls in several previous elections. But now, she says, the public has learned so much more about how to cope with the pandemic and take precautions to stop its spread. She decided to sign up to work in November. Although almost everyone she knows plans to vote using an absentee ballot, “some people just need to come to the polls so we need to make sure that they can do that."
Diane Roberts, who runs her own broadcasting production business in Washington, D.C., heard from the SAG-AFTRA union she still belongs to that poll workers were desperately needed for this election so she and a friend decided to sign up.
"I feel this is a very important election,” Roberts said. “Being a poll worker is a way for me to show my patriotism.” Roberts said she believes it is important for people who are relatively young and healthy to step up at a time when those who usually do this work are hesitant because of the virus. Despite her willingness to help, Roberts learned recently that the District of Columbia didn’t need her at the polls this fall after all. “I’m very disappointed,” she said.
Pandemic's impact on voting
"I let my darn kids talk me out of working at the polls during the primary because of COVID,” said Caryl Ligler, 82, a retired Wisconsin high school teacher. Now she is ready to work at her polling place in November but her small community of Trego might not need her. Ligler said she will work if called upon.
Her job at the polling place during elections before 2020 was to register people so they could vote. Wisconsin is one of 21 states that allows same-day voter registration. The coronavirus has also upended work Ligler did to register young voters. She had planned to go into the schools in the spring to help register high school seniors who had turned 18 or would be 18 by Election Day. “But when the schools shut down and everything went virtual we couldn't do that,” she said.
Public opinion surveys have consistently shown that because of the pandemic, an increasing number of Americans will not be voting in person — or will go to the polls during early voting because they expect to encounter fewer people than they would on Election Day.
A recent series of AARP polls in 11 battleground states showed that more than half of 50-plus voters planned not to vote in person on Election Day.
But election experts say that doesn't lessen the need for poll workers because the increase in absentee ballots is likely to be offset by what could still be a record-high turnout for this election. And, they say, coronavirus spikes close to the Nov. 3 election might lead some people to change their mind about being poll workers.
“We're creating a reserve because we know we're going to lose about 10 percent of our recruits on the last couple of days before the election,” said Gary Scott, director of the Office of Elections in Fairfax County, Virginia. Scott said they will also need extra poll workers this year because of the pandemic. For example, “we're sending extra people out to help manage the lines and social distancing,” he said, and will station poll workers at the boxes available at every polling place for voters to drop off their absentee ballots.
Recruiting poll workers
The shortage of poll workers nationwide has led to a concerted effort by advocacy groups and corporate America to organize recruiting campaigns.
"Basically, we're trying to make sure that older people who might be at a higher risk from COVID aren't exposed to the virus unnecessarily,” said Courtney Cardin, director of partnerships and influencer engagement for Power the Polls, an organization launched in July to help recruit poll workers. Cardin said their aim is to replace the traditional older poll worker with younger people who may be more willing to step up. So far, 500,000 people have come forward to work.
AARP is among the not-for-profits and businesses that have come together to alert Americans to the problem of finding poll workers and filling slots across the country. In addition to AARP's Power the Polls online link, PowerThePolls.org/AARP, through which nearly 3,000 people have signed up, AARP is partnering with the Association of Young Americans and the New Leaders Council in an intergenerational effort to attract people to assist those who will be voting in person on Election Day.
“We will encourage all AARP members to communicate with their younger family and friends around the importance of voting and how to participate as a poll worker,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer.
In addition, businesses have stepped up. As part of a corporate coalition called Time to Vote, companies, including AARP, are allowing their employees to work the polls without losing pay for that day.
Safety at the polls
Elections officials across the country are taking extra precautions at polling stations to protect not only voters but also their poll workers from the coronavirus.
"We've put transparent shields between the check-in stations and the voters,” Scott said. “All of our election officers are being provided with face shields and face masks and gloves and hand sanitizer.” Signs asking voters to wear masks and maintain social distancing will be posted at every polling place.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect new information.