At least a quarter of North Carolina’s counties are struggling to recruit poll workers for the 2020 election.
That’s according to a survey of counties conducted last week by the State Board of Elections. State election officials expect millions of voters to cast ballots in-person in North Carolina during October’s early voting days and on Election Day despite the global COVID-19 pandemic.
To serve those in-person voters, North Carolina’s counties will employ an estimated 25,000 poll workers in what SBE Director Karen Brinson Bell calls the largest community event the state will see this year.
“So many things had to be canceled because of coronavirus,” Brinson Bell said. “And yet, we’ll still assemble to carry out democracy and ensure that our elections happen.”
Democracy itself is on the line: In the worst-case scenario, a shortage of poll workers means shutting down voting sites. That leads to confusion, and confusion leads to disenfranchisement.
Even if all the polling sites stay open, a shortage of poll workers could mean longer wait times. Inexperienced or poorly trained poll workers could make the situation worse.
So when Brinson Bell calls the SBE’s poll worker recruitment effort “Democracy Heroes,” she means it.
“We really can’t carry out this election without them,” Brinson Bell said.
Though the state board is helping recruit poll workers, the responsibility ultimately lies with county boards of elections. That’s how it is all around the country. Elections are local affairs, run by local governments, and poll workers have to be assigned to the county in which they are registered to vote.
Urban counties with large universities seem to be in the best shape, while smaller and more rural counties are still trying to fill out their ranks, according to the SBE survey of county needs conducted last week. But there are exceptions.
Buncombe County, which includes Asheville, and Cumberland County, which includes Fayetteville, are both short a couple hundred poll workers, according to information they gave to the SBE.
Jones County, taken up in large part by the Croatan National Forest near the coast and one of the smallest counties in the state, as well as Lenoir, a mid-sized county neighboring Jones, report they are sitting pretty.
Across the state, local election boards are reporting shortages in both Democratic and Republican strongholds. Unless all the need is met, voters may face burdens when trying to cast their ballot, no matter which political candidates they support.
The SBE survey shows 24 of the state’s 100 counties do not have enough poll workers. Another 30 did not respond to the survey at all.
Some of these counties face the potential risk of having to close polling places, though no election director has yet said they will do so.
Rutherford County, on the South Carolina border between Charlotte and Asheville, only has a third of the needed workers and is looking specifically for student assistants, according to the county’s SBE survey response.
Even so, county elections director Dawn Lovelace said her agency does not have any plans to reduce voting locations.
“We will not close any sites. We will have two One Stop sites and 17 precincts open on Election Day,” she said.
Lovelace said she’s looking for anyone who meets the qualifications and can attend a one-day training session to work.
To qualify, a person must be registered to vote in the county, not be running for office or the relative of someone running for office, and not be an elected official.
State law requires that the three head poll workers, called precinct judges, at every Election Day voting site staff the location with both Democratic and Republican members. In counties that strongly favor one political party, finding a parity of workers is proving difficult.
Bertie County, in the northeast part of the state, has about half the number of poll workers it needs — and needs more Republicans for political balance, according to the SBE survey.
On the other hand, Clay County, in the far western corner of the state, needs 30 more workers for Election Day and needs more Democrats for parity.
Counties also have more nuanced needs. Rebecca Hall, Clay County’s election director, is looking for younger voters to help at the polls.
“They can run a computer, and they’re not afraid of a computer,” Hall said.
In most counties, poll workers need to use computers to check voters into the polling place. They also need to be fluent with the computers to help curbside and provisional voters, Hall said.
Hall is asking her county for extra backup workers for November, too. For her county, she needs six or seven. After all, five of her workers backed out at the last-minute for the June 23 second primary.
In Buncombe, a much larger county, election director Corinne Duncan is looking for at least 50 backups. A number of counties reported to the SBE that they have enough workers for the fall, though only if no one backs out.
Another nine counties specifically said they need more workers for their Multipartisan Assistance Teams, which help voters in hospitals and residential care facilities with their mail-in ballots.
The best way to find out if your county needs more poll workers or MAT members is to call your county board of elections.
Why be a poll worker?
Poll workers get paid.
Some people have the misperception that they are volunteers, said Towanna Jackson, Hoke County’s election director. This year, poll workers are getting paid more than usual.
“People don’t realize that they actually get paid to do this, and I think that has drawn a lot more people in,” Jackson said.
People can also work the polls without affecting their unemployment benefits, thanks to a bill the state legislature passed in June.
The state Senate passed another statewide COVID funding bill this week that includes an extra $100 pay bump for every poll worker who serves on Election Day. That bill passed the legislature this week and now goes to the governor.
State and federal funding has already paid for extensive personal protection and cleaning equipment to be used in voting sites.
Hoke County’s election director reported to the SBE that she has only 20 of the 100 poll workers she projects she’ll need for Election Day and 15 of the 30 needed for early voting. Even so, Jackson said she is not worried about closing any voting sites due to a shortage of poll workers.
None of the poll workers interviewed for this story mentioned the pay.
Bobby Jones, the lead election official at his Wayne County precinct on Election Day, said being a poll worker is another way to empower his community.
Jones, who has worked the polls for 20 years and voted in 45 North Carolina elections since 1992, said there is power in the vote.
“You participate in the process to support and to model for people coming into the voting precinct to make that a positive and uplifting process,” Jones said. “And it is one area where you can help disenfranchised people kind of realize their power.”
Jones has interacted with election officials who treated Black voters poorly, he said, and has had people report similar experiences to him. That is one reason why he works the polls, he said.
“As chief judge in these precincts, you’re there to support everybody,” Jones said. “I don’t care what their race or political affiliation is. You’re there to support everybody.”
Peggy Defenderfer, the lead poll worker in one of Wake County’s largest early voting sites, says she does it for “the satisfaction of watching voters put their ballots in the ballot box.”
“I live for that, I do,” Defenderfer said.
She comes from a military family, and working the polls is her version of service to democracy, she said.
Officials: Don’t make a blind commitment
Upholding democracy is hard work. Most of that work is done by county election staff who are adapting on the fly to running an election in a pandemic on top of their usual preparations for a major election. Part of that preparation means finding and training a lot of new poll workers.
Voter interest in serving as poll workers is essential. But voters should know what they’re getting into before they sign up, said Duncan, Buncombe County’s election director.
“It’s great if people review the requirements first so that only people who are really interested are calling,” Duncan said.
Poll workers need to work from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., at least, on Election Day, Nov. 3. Counties break the day into two shifts during early voting, but most require that their poll workers work every weekday and several weekend days from Oct.15 to 31.
Poll workers will also need to be trained. Some counties are moving to multiple, small-group trainings while social distancing. Others are moving training online. It is essential that counties teach the material thoroughly and that poll workers take the training seriously, according to Rachel Cobb, a professor and chair of political science and legal studies at Suffolk University in Boston.
Even so, some poll workers will be trained last-minute. This happens frequently, Cobb said, even in more normal years. There is no deadline for pulling in new workers.
Poll workers will have a litany of duties, often split between experienced and new workers. They will greet voters, check people in to vote, make sure voters submit their ballot in the right way, manage spoiled and provisional ballots, assist voters with disabilities if requested, set up voting machines, clean behind voters and manage curbside voting, among other tasks.
A good poll worker will be fluent in the “language of elections and the legal requirements of elections,” Cobb said. Defenderfer said she’s relieved that Wake County has enough poll workers. She also needs to be able to rely on the poll workers assigned to her voting site, who Defenderfer calls “her team.”
“In order to even make voting happen, I have to have people I can count on,” Defenderfer said. “So, if I don’t have enough staffing, then everything goes to heck.”
Buncombe County has enough names on its waiting list to meet its remaining need for 100 more Election Day poll workers, Duncan said. But officials there know that a lot of the people who signed up will not follow through, so the county is going ahead with radio ads and other outreach to keep recruiting.
“There’s a lot of time expended going after people who end up not working out,” Cobb said. “And that is a huge strain on election offices, along with providing all of this training and the last minute and the emergencies and all of that.”
The SBE survey shows 46 of the state’s 100 counties indicated they either have enough poll workers or are close to meeting their needs as of Aug. 29. Orange County has an extra 800 people in its poll worker waiting list, and that office is, by necessity, more concerned with sending out almost 20,000 absentee by-mail ballots by Friday than it is in calling all of the extra people who signed up.
Lessons for the concerned voter
This year, North Carolina expanded its early voting hours, and neither any county nor the SBE has indicated that they will close any early voting sites or Election Day precincts. Combine that with expanded interest in absentee by-mail voting, and North Carolina voters could be spread pretty evenly across three different voting methods.
Brinson Bell expects that around 20% of voters will vote on Election Day. That is about half of what the state usually handles. And barring further catastrophe like a major hurricane, the state should have the same number of polling places open as in 2016.
That is an important protection for voters, Cobb said. Voters who failed to sign or include witness information on their by-mail ballot and were notified of the error, did not receive their by-mail ballot in the mail or who waited too long to send it back can still vote in person.
But the more people voting on Election Day, the more difficult it could be.
“The key message that everyone needs to know that it is supercritical to do as much as you can, as early as you can,” Cobb said.
That means voting early. Historically, the first days of early in-person voting, which starts on Oct. 15, are the least crowded. Voters who want to vote by-mail should request a ballot as soon as possible, Cobb said, and make sure to return it with plenty of time. This year, election officials suggest it be in the mail no later than Oct. 25.
This story was jointly reported and edited by Jordan Wilkie and Frank Taylor of Carolina Public Press; Ames Alexander of The Charlotte Observer; Lucille Sherman and Jordan Schrader of The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Emily Featherston of WECT; Tyler Dukes of WRAL; and Jason deBruyn of WUNC.