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The Scramble to Find Poll Workers

COVID-19 is making many reconsider the job this Election Day

By Kevyn Burger

Bill Currey has thoroughly enjoyed his 45-year career in real estate, with one notable exception.

polling place
Credit: Adobe

Now semi-retired, the 75-year-old resident of Charleston, W. Va., is still required to take annual continuing education classes to maintain his license.

Bill and Matt Currey
Bill and Matt Currey

“I know it’s important, but I hate it,” admitted Currey.

So earlier this summer, Currey jumped at the chance to forgo taking a mandatory day-long course by becoming a poll worker for West Virginia’s June 9 primary election instead.

Currey and his son Matt, 50, who has taken over much of the day-to-day operations of the family real estate business, underwent a short training, then spent Primary Day at a polling place.

“It was a positive experience for both of us. We killed two birds with one stone,” said Matt.

In the face of a desperate shortage of poll workers due to the pandemic, the West Virginia Real Estate Commission made a deal to allow the state’s agents and brokers to earn their continuing education credits by helping aid their fellow citizens in casting their ballots.

“We had a much larger response than we expected. We saw it as a great way for our profession to give back to the community,” said Jerry Forren, executive director of the West Virginia Real Estate Commission. "Our licensees stepped up to fill the need. A lot of our poll workers here in West Virginia are older and afraid to be out now because of COVID."

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Safety Concerns for Some Former Poll Workers

Across the nation, states are scrambling to come up with novel ways to entice new poll workers to take the place of the aging work force that has long been on the job on Election Day. Some employers are pitching in, too. The Power the Polls initiative to recruit low-risk poll workers has teamed up with more than 70 companies to find poll workers this year. And employers such as Microsoft, Levi Strauss and Salesforce are encouraging their employees to be poll workers, sometimes providing paid time off to do so.

Citizens who undergo a short training course and then staff polling places at places like the nation’s fire halls and schools are typically paid a modest stipend for their time, with the amount varying from state to state. Historically, it is older people who have both the time and the inclination to take on this vital civic chore.

Their devoted service might have been taken for granted in the past. But this year, its value has become clear.

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, in 2018, 58% of the country's poll workers were 61 or older; a quarter of them were north of 70.

That’s the age group linked to a higher risk for health complications related to the coronavirus. As a result, many of these dedicated older workers will likely break longstanding Election Day streaks and stay home in November.

"Last year our office honored a woman in Cincinnati; in fifty-five years, she never missed a single election. Think about that."

“We’ve directed our county boards of elections to survey their longtime poll workers to get an honest assessment, to ask: 'Can we count on you? Even if there’s a spike in your county or a resurgence of the virus, will you work?' We need to find out,” said Frank LaRose, Ohio’s Secretary of State.

Frank LaRose, Ohio's chief elections officer
Frank LaRose, Ohio's chief elections officer

Ohio will rely on 35,000 workers to staff its 4,000 polling locations on Election Day. As Ohio’s chief elections officer, LaRose’s office has put together a 48-point plan aimed at keeping workers and voters safe; it includes guidelines about masking, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and social distancing that LaRose hopes might reassure veteran workers.

“Anecdotally, we hear many of them are conflicted. They badly want to do this; it’s something they look forward to. But if they have health conditions or are immune-compromised, they have to think very carefully. They may have a child or grandchild who is talking them out of working,” LaRose said.


LaRose’s office brainstormed ideas to recruit new workers. It’s now targeting high school students and veterans, and offering Ohio attorneys and accountants the opportunity to work in place of taking their required continuing education credits.

“I’ve convinced my little brother, who’s a college student, and my mother, who is sixty-two, to be poll workers for the first time,” LaRose said. “We hope some of our longtime workers will help us meet the demand. Last year, our office honored a woman in Cincinnati; in fifty-five years she never missed a single election. Think about that. Women have had the vote for a hundred years and she’s been a poll worker for more than half that time.”

Helping at the Polls: Worth the Risk

Kate Havelin laughingly calls the look that she and her husband Leo Timmons are sporting as “shaggy.”  Since the pandemic lockdown began in March, the risk-averse retired couple has ventured out of their Minneapolis apartment just for walks and fresh air, not even for haircuts.

Kate Havelin and Leo Timmins
Kate Havelin and Leo Timmins  |  Credit: Courtesy of Kate Havelin

But they both put in long days as election judges on August 11, Minnesota’s Primary Election Day, and are determined to do the same on November 3.

“We’ve been working elections for twenty years. We don’t say it’s our civic duty, we like to call it our civic opportunity,” said Havelin. “It’s our chance to be part of our democracy. And this year, helping people cast their ballots safely is really critical.”

The couple was impressed with the precautions in place for the Minnesota primary. Rules prohibit married couples from working at the same polling place, but the library where Havelin worked and the church where Timmons was assigned employed various techniques, including plexiglass barriers, multiple bottles of hand sanitizer and voting booths set up with distance in mind.

"We don't say it's our civic duty, we like to call it our civic opportunity."

Even as elections officials stress the efficiency and potential safety of early and absentee voting, Havelin anticipates a large number of voters will be determined to vote in person on Election Day.

“Some people feel best about walking into their polling place in their neighborhood. I want to do my part to make sure we are staffed; this really matters,” she said. “We will do it even if it is a risk.”

This summer, in the lead-up to November, voting proponents in Secretary of States' offices and elections bureaus in states with spring and summer primary elections have used their outreach efforts to snag poll workers who might be willing to work again on Election Day.

In West Virginia, Bill Currey valued his experience on primary day. But he won’t push his luck.

“I admired the poll workers I spent the day with. They make the wheels turn. I felt patriotic about helping voters push that button and mark that ballot. How many times do we get a chance to do something that helps our country?” he said. “But at my age, as a former smoker, I’m a walking target. I dodged the bullet one time. It’s not smart for me to do it again.”

Photograph of Kevyn Burger
Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer.  She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow and a 2020 Continuing Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier. Read More
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