What it’s like working at the polls in the middle of a pandemic

With an hour-long video training under my belt, including a five-minute segment about pandemic-related precautions, I circled the halls of a government building in downtown Austin, Texas, looking for the polling location where I’d signed up to work. I tried to open just about every door, until I realized the building was deserted.

When I called various election officials, they informed me that typically these types of details were sorted out at in-person trainings before the election, but they had been canceled due to Covid-19. It turned out that the other poll workers got lost in the maze of construction en route to the building. We wound up opening at 8:15 am, over an hour past our scheduled opening time.

My job that July day was to serve as an alternate election judge, a role that involves helping the election judge settle any voter issues or disputes at the polling site, for a combined primary runoff — postponed from May — and special election. Despite the additional time afforded by the delay, as well as an election that typically sees low turnout, I witnessed firsthand how the health and safety of both poll workers and voters left much to be desired during this historic pandemic.

And now, with the 2020 general election fast approaching and Covid-19’s spread showing no signs of slowing, there are other factors that highlight why we need to make in-person voting as safe as possible come November. Only 21 percent of Americans live in states that send mail-in absentee ballots to all voters, while 22 percent live in states that require a special reason to receive one. On top of all of this, the USPS has begun to inform states that it might not even have the capacity to handle such an extraordinary surge in votes by mail. It’s important we learn from the mistakes made during the primaries.

The virus has specifically devastated Texas, where I was working; the overall death toll has climbed to more than 10,000 as of late August. According to a White House report obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, on the day of the election I worked, the state was in the red zone for both Covid-19 cases, meaning it had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population the previous week, and for test positivity, meaning more than 10 percent of diagnostic test results came back positive.

Against this backdrop, poll workers like myself who volunteer to assist voters are crucial to a functional election. But this year, perhaps unsurprisingly, many volunteers simply did not show up. Three out of the seven poll workers at my location, for undisclosed reasons, did not attend, and prior to Election Day, 25 poll workers from Travis County had dropped out while another six to eight did not show. It is not hard to see why poll workers might be so fearful of health consequences that they would back out at the last minute.

Our group of poll workers consisted of three men younger than 30 and one woman in her 50s. Considering 58 percent of poll workers in the 2018 general election were over 60 years old, our polling site’s age demographic surprised me. In talking with the younger poll workers, they explained a mix of patriotic duty and simply lockdown boredom as reasons for signing up. For three of us, it was the first election we had ever worked, while the other had a week’s worth of early voting experience.

On voting day, it became clear that it was a good thing so many of us were in a lower-risk age group. I assumed basic preventive measures would be implemented to ensure poll workers were not carrying the virus and infecting voters or each other. While poll workers were required to wear masks, there was no testing and no temperature checks, and workers weren’t asked any questions regarding symptoms. We also received no protocol on how to handle a sick voter. In terms of PPE, we were provided with an array of cleaning supplies, face shields, and finger cots, along with instructions on how to use each item.

Then there were the voters themselves. In-person voting makes it difficult to implement critical preventive efforts for voters and poll workers, as it risks infringing on voting rights (i.e. turning away voters for not wearing a mask or running a fever). But our team of poll workers started the day with a pact that we would be honest with each other if someone was doing something that made others uncomfortable, like taking off their mask indoors. In an effort to maximize safety for voters, we set up a check-in line with spots 6 feet apart, used the entirety of our massive meeting room space to keep voting machines separate, and designed a clear entry-exit flow to ensure minimal contact between voters.

We were lucky. Every voter wore a mask and seemed oddly accustomed to being inside with groups of people. This sentiment likely had to do with our site, which was in an office building complex and catered to people who were probably more used to the Covid-19 protocols of working in-person.

But not every location is like that. The Wisconsin State Journal reported a mix of mask-wearing compliance at its April election after voters were encouraged but not required to wear them. Following the election, different studies have shown different risk levels of in-person voting and the spread of the virus in the state. The current rule of thumb seems to be that spreading happens with interactions longer than 15 minutes. At our site, most folks were in and out quickly, but a handful had issues with their voter registration and spent 30 to 45 minutes in the room.

Despite all these risks, voter turnout among Democrats has broken records in 2020. Texas offers a perfect example of a state that, despite restrictive mail-in voting, saw increased voting this year. In an election where only Democrats had a statewide primary runoff for the US Senate candidate facing Republican Sen. John Cornyn, the party reported its highest turnout in years with 5.8 percent of registered voters casting votes — more than double the amount cast in the 2018 runoff. So far, the pandemic does not appear to be dissuading voters from showing up.

As we gear up for the presidential election of 2020, officials need to be thinking more about how to safely protect poll workers in the middle of a pandemic. Election commissions should amplify existing measures, such as giving people the option to vote from their car — or curbside voting — which has been expanded in several states. (Texas did expand curbside voting as well, though no voters requested this at our site.)

Additionally, they should heavily recruit less vulnerable populations, such as college students and younger service industry employees who have lost jobs due to the pandemic. Finally, increased training and communication will be highly important. In all likelihood, many poll workers will be inexperienced, so providing a detailed outline of what their roles entail and pairing them with experienced workers when possible will be crucial to minimizing wait times at polling sites, and in turn decreasing exposure.

After that primary election, I inquired about testing to see if my day working the polls had resulted in an infection. Travis County Elections informed me they wouldn’t be able to provide help in getting access to testing, something I had hoped to do before visiting my parents the following week. At the time, Texans across the state were reporting extremely long wait times for tests and delays getting results back, so I was nervous. I did manage to find a testing location, where I was lectured by the nurse about the exposure risks of pole dancing. Apparently, I needed to be more specific than “poll working” — a role that also warrants a conversation about exposure risks.

Benton Graham is a freelance writer and graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin studying journalism.

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