Even with an increase in absentee voting, election directors expect a large in-person turnout.
Since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began upending so many aspects of American life, elections directors across the state have worried about the impact on the November election.
Health concerns have led to an unprecedented number of absentee ballot requests. But a divisive presidential election and tumultuous political season could also lead to heavy in-person turnout. That’s a problem for the backbone of the election systems across the state: the more than 15,000 election workers, the majority of whom are older people for whom coronavirus infection is most dangerous.
“We do carry kind of a base of people from election to election,” said Guilford County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt. “And many of them do tend to be older.”
In the 2018 midterm election, nearly 60% of U.S. poll workers were age 61 or older, according to an Election Administration and Voting Survey. More than a quarter were over 70.
For the state’s elections directors, that’s meant a lot of uncertainty. Just 41 days from the election, a lot of long-time poll workers are opting out this year to try to stay healthy.
“There are people who have said they’re going to sit this one out and there are people who are telling me, ‘I’m not ready to make a decision yet, I’m not sure yet,’” Collicutt said.
While poll workers can be mandated to wear masks and take other precautions, counties can’t require voters to wear masks. “We’re going to have them everywhere and make them available,” Collicutt said. “We’re hoping that when people see workers wearing masks, when they see other people wearing masks, they’ll choose to wear them.”
Fortunately, according to elections directors from across the state, the Democracy Heroes campaign by State Board of Elections has succeeded in recruiting younger people to fill the gaps. “I’ve got over 2,200 names of people who have submitted their names through that online portal,” Collicutt said. “That program has been great.”
Derek Bowens, Durham County elections director, agreed. “A lot of the people we’ve gotten have come as a result of that Democracy Heroes program,” Bowens said. “That’s been a huge help. It’s been a big part of our recruitment. We’re in a place now where we’ve had to put some folks on waiting lists for Election Day. We’re still filling some gaps in our one-stop early voting schedule, but we’re looking pretty good.”
Younger poll workers rising to the challenge
Rachel Scott is among the younger people stepping up as poll workers in Greensboro. At 35, Scott is working the polls for the first time this year.
Scott’s schedule isn’t as flexible as many of the retired people whose efforts keep the election system working year after year. She’s a single mother and a curriculum facilitator at the Academy at Lincoln in Greensboro. But this year, she said it felt important to make the time.
“I’m available and I’m relatively healthy,” Scott said. “I know the typical ages of poll workers is up there. I know at my polling place it’s always been seniors. I know a lot of them are going to opt out and I feel like they should opt out because of their age. So I’m happy to do it.”
In Carteret County, 26-year-old Elizabeth Sawyer said she heeded the call for the first time. “You don’t usually even hear about them needing people,” she said. “But this year we know it’s different. I feel like everybody has got to do their part. I think some people don’t think about COVID as much here cause we’ve been pretty lucky with our numbers, but it has an effect on the senior population and you do have to think about that.”
Smaller counties like Carteret — where the population is about 70,000 — have seen dramatically fewer infections than larger, more densely populated counties. The county has recorded just 619 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and five deaths, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
But about a quarter of the Carteret’s population is over 65. Those older people, a reliable pool for poll workers, are an important part of making election day work. There are about 50,000 registered voters, according to county Elections Director Caitlin Sabadish. They need about 200 precinct officials for election day and one-stop early voting.
“A couple of months ago we thought we were going to have to temporarily consolidate two of our election day precincts cause we just didn’t think we were going to have enough workers,” Sabadish said. “But we reached out to the county, we did some town halls and we got an incredible turnout. And we did get people from the state portal too — that was a big help.”
In Robeson County, the decrease in poll workers hasn’t been extreme, said county Elections Director Tina Bledsoe. But an influx of younger people has been helpful — including a few hundred from the Democracy Heroes campaign. “We got 117 in one day just the other day from that program,” Bledsoe said. “We get more every week.”
New workers, new training
A wave of younger poll workers might help elections proceed more smoothly this year — but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
First, not all those who volunteer will work out. “We look at the pool of people and that’s great,” said Collicutt in Guilford County. “But then you start to talk to them and there’s a lot of, ‘I can come after I drop my kids off at school and I have to be done by soccer practice.’ A lot of them don’t realize that when you do this, in a lot of cases you have to be there at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. and you have to stay until the polls close.”
New, COVID-specific training is also adding to the already robust training poll workers must receive.
“We’ve definitely had to extend our training,” said Sabadish in Carteret County. “We’ve added one hour to specifically cover COVID training. Typically we would do a four-hour class. But now it’s extended to five hours. We’ve got all the PPE that we need. Right now I’m working on getting the square footage of all our precincts and working on how many voters we have at any one time. Some of our fire stations are pretty small so I want to make sure we have enough room for distancing.”
Though the number of absentee ballot requests are up, elections directors in counties large and small say they still expect a large in-person turnout. Because of the pandemic, counties might have to readjust some of their smaller polling places to accommodate social distancing or even find alternate sites.
There are over 75,000 registered voters in Robeson County. Bledsoe said all 39 precincts will be open as usual, plus the seven one-stop sites. “That’s one more than usual,” Bledsoe said. “The board wasn’t going to open as many as six, as we have in the past. But with COVID-19 and the need for social distancing, we’re opening seven.”
The Lumberton office isn’t large, Bledsoe said, and usually sees over 10,000 voters in a presidential election. This year they’re using an adjacent gym as a one-stop early voting site to allow people to spread out.
Durham County has also moved some polling places to larger venues where necessary, Bowens said — and expanded its early voting up to 2,500 hours for this election. The county is about $100,000 over budget for early voting, Bowens said, but grants and CARES Act dollars will help make that up.
“Durham County puts a large emphasis on elections and they’re going to support us in getting it right,” Bowens said. “Historically we’ve seen heavy early voting in Durham and we expect to see that again.”
Absentee by-mail voting is also up significantly in Durham this year, he said. The county has sent out over 50,000 ballots and has already received almost 10,000 back — almost 4,000 more than they received in the 2016 election.
“If you take the absentee by-mail and you factor in what we’ve seen traditionally in early voting in Durham, that should cut down on election day voting, when you can see the lines queue up,” Bowens said.
Whatever happens, elections directors said, their staff and poll workers are trying to prepare. “We’re expecting the best,” Sabadish said. “And we’re planning for the worst.”