Elections wouldn’t happen without poll workers, and as Allegheny County prepares to carry out the June 2 primary amid the coronavirus pandemic, officials have been reckoning with whether they’ll have enough people to staff every polling place.
But thanks in large part to a plan to staff fewer than 150 polling places county-wide, officials believe they will have the staff they need.
During normal times, the county has 1,323 polling places, and each spot needs five poll workers – bringing the total to just over 6,500 people. Poll workers help check voters in at their precinct, provide voting materials and answer questions, among other important duties.
The people who sign up for the job tend to be older, often they are retirees who can take a Tuesday off. But because people over 65 are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, officials have been worried about exposing susceptible people to the virus, and having enough staff to run the polls if workers chose to stay home for health reasons.
Clifford Lau is a judge of elections in Moon Township. He's also 65 years old and has pre-existing health conditions. And he says many of his fellow poll workers are in roughly the same boat.
“I’m not sure exactly what all their ages are but they’re not necessarily all spring chickens," he said. He added that he had decided against working the polls next month. "I haven’t made a decision about the November [election] yet.”
To solve for what they expected to be a lower-than-usual poll worker turnout, the county’s plan for the June 2 primary includes drastic cuts to the number of in-person voting locations that need to be staffed. Instead of the usual 1,323 polling places, there will be less than 150 – requiring less just over 25 percent of the normal workforce.
A spokesperson for the county said that “although they are still confirming workers, they expect they will have sufficient staff to run the polling places.”
The shortage of workers is not new, and is a common problem nationwide. To help recruit poll workers across the country, the group Voter Protection Corps is launched a recruitment project in Erie County this month.
“In every election, there are always going to be capacity issues,” said Bob LaRocca, executive director of the group. “With coronavirus, it just makes recruitment of folks for in-person voting work much more difficult.”
LaRocca said officials in Erie are looking for about 100 more people to help run polling places there.
“There’s just a lot of confusion and uncertainty,” he said about the 2020 election, which is contributing to the shortage. “Are we going to have in-person voting? And what does it look like?”
The Pennsylvania primary is June 2. You can sign up to vote by mail here. The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot is 5 p.m. on May 26. Ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on election day.