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Coronavirus Pandemic Impacts Election Site Staffing


Several states hold primaries today. And you know who usually helps make those primaries happen? Retired people. They have the time to do it. And they are civically minded. But because of the pandemic, a lot of these older folks just don't want to take the risk. NPR's Barbara Sprunt has the story.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Susan Weiss (ph) has been a poll worker in Bethesda, Md., for 16 years.

SUSAN WEISS: It's really quite an experience doing it. Set up all the equipment - putting signs up, putting arrows on the floor, et cetera, et cetera. The camaraderie of the group that volunteers is marvelous.

SPRUNT: But this year, Weiss, who's 74, decided it's just too risky to show up for work in November.

WEISS: I am a very patriotic person. I felt this is just a duty that we should have, you know? So not doing it, it makes me sad. Should I get the virus? I'm quite concerned over my being able to survive it.

SPRUNT: Weiss is far from alone. In 2018, more than half of poll workers were over the age of 61, which puts them at a higher risk for complications with COVID-19. Election experts fear a massive shortage of workers for the general election.

BOB BRANDON: There's probably going to be the need for a couple hundred thousand people.

SPRUNT: That's Bob Brandon, the president of the Fair Elections Center, which created a web portal where users can quickly locate the hours, pay and training requirements for their own jurisdiction. And, he says, even in normal times, convincing people to sign up is tricky.

BRANDON: It still takes something to convince somebody who's never done this before to take the day off to commit to 12 hours to do something they've never done before.

SPRUNT: Add in all the health concerns a pandemic brings and it's even harder to attract new workers. Ohio's secretary of state, Frank LaRose, has been trying to drum up interest among younger people, who are less susceptible to COVID and have the added benefit of being more tech savvy. He has a simple pitch.

FRANK LAROSE: Help us defend democracy. When you show up at your neighborhood polling location, somebody is going to be there behind the table to greet you, to check your ID, to hand you your ballot. That doesn't happen by magic.

SPRUNT: The primary season saw scores of poll workers dropping out for fear of contracting the virus, which led to the shutting down of poll locations in places like Wisconsin.

LAROSE: My heart goes out to them. But our friends in Milwaukee that had a last-minute need to do a massive consolidation of polling locations just because they didn't have enough poll workers, we can't have that type of thing occur here in Ohio.

SPRUNT: LaRose is working with businesses to give their employees time off to serve as poll workers, encouraging attorneys to work in exchange for continuing legal education credit and even targeting 17 year olds.

LAROSE: Maybe the silver lining of this whole pandemic experience is that we recruit a whole new generation of poll workers.

SPRUNT: That generation now includes Rocio Hernandez (ph), a 24-year-old living in suburban Chicago. She signed up to work the primary in March because her employer gives staff the day off to serve as poll workers. She intends to return in November despite her worries over the virus.

ROCIO HERNANDEZ: There is fear in that. But I also recognize that I'm fortunate that I have very good health. When I look at the news and I see places that have already had primaries and have had shortages and they've had to, like, consolidate polling locations, that's the consequence of not having enough poll workers. And so I don't want to see that happen in my community.

SPRUNT: Hernandez is bilingual and says being a poll worker allows her to make members of her community feel more welcome at the polls.

HERNANDEZ: I think about my own parents, right? They speak English. But sometimes they're not necessarily the most secure in their English. And so I think there really is something special about being able to go to the polls and talk to somebody who speaks your own language and get your questions answered in your own language. And I think that's a special opportunity that younger poll workers can really bring to the table.

SPRUNT: For Susan Weiss, the poll worker we heard at the beginning of the story, that generational handover is really important. Her grandson, Max, is a law student at William & Mary. And this year, he's going to work the polls instead of her. He says putting effort into something that's focused on civics, not politics, is refreshing.

MAX: I've always had the energy to go out and campaign. But this is the non-partisan, basic democracy saving stuff, which is people going out and volunteering so that other people can vote.

SPRUNT: And, in fact, he's set up a group to encourage law students around the country to do the same this fall. Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FAI'S "TO THE GREEN TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
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