The commonwealth has a severe shortage of poll workers less than two months before the election.
RICHMOND — Virginia cities and counties need more poll workers. That was the word Monday from state election officials, who expect heavy voter turnout this fall. Already, they’ve seen 110,000 more absentee ballot requests than the total for 2016. They believe in-person voting will attract a similar level of interest.
While absentee voting is encouraged due to COVID-19, Virginians can still vote in-person November 3. As a result, the Virginia Department of Health has teamed up with the state’s department of elections to introduce safety guidelines. The health department has mandated strict cleaning and sanitizing procedures for polling stations.
But, the state has run into a problem: not enough people have applied to work at these stations. Without enough election officers, several polling places may not open in November.
Virginia usually has a poll worker shortage during presidential elections, says Department of Elections Commissioner Christopher Piper, but COVID-19 made the problem worse. Because the majority of poll workers are elderly and at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, fewer agreed to work this year.
“Elections officers in Virginia are usually 65 years or older, which automatically puts them in a higher risk category if they were to catch COVID-19,” Piper said. “We’ve had a large number of (elderly people) indicate that they didn’t want to serve as elections officers this year.”
In response, Gov. Ralph Northam is encouraging people who’re at lower risk to help the cause and work the polls.
“We need to make up for that shortfall with people who aren’t considered as high risk to keep polling places open and operating smoothly,” said Northam during a press conference on Sept. 1.
Why are Poll Workers Important?
“Poll workers are critical part of the elections,” said Piper. Their jobs range widely, from collecting people’s ballots to disinfecting booths after use. But each job is important in protecting a voter’s rights and health.
“I don’t have a precise number. But we’re looking at around needing to recruit 3,500 based on an initial survey that we did in the summer,” said Piper.
Typically, there are about 2,400 polling places in Virginia. Under state and federal law, you need a legal minimum of three people working at each location. However, Piper said it usually takes more to run a station smoothly.
“Localities with higher populations usually need more election officers,” said Piper. Plus, poll workers are necessary on more than just Election Day.
“They’re needed in the whole election cycle. Virginia also has 45 days of early in person voting, so election officials are going to be needed,” said Piper. Virginia’s early voting begins later this week, on Sept. 18.
What Do You Do As a Poll Worker?
There are several jobs you could do as a poll worker. According to the Board of Elections website, the roles are as follows:
- Greeter: A greeter welcomes voters and directs them to the check-in area; may also encourage voters to get their ID out and ready. Greeters direct voters to signs and other information such as sample ballot items before voters check in.
- Pollbook Officer: Pollbook officers are in charge of signing in voters, checking if they’re registered to vote and marking them down after they’ve voted.
- Ballot Officer – A ballot officer controls and accounts for all the ballots.
- Voting Equipment and Booth Officer – A voting equipment and booth officer directs voters to available booths and maintains voter privacy in each booth. They also help with any possible voting equipment errors.