/States in the Northeast are struggling to hire poll watchers. Heres how they are finding people

States in the Northeast are struggling to hire poll watchers. Heres how they are finding people

Nell Plaine had been a poll worker the last five years, but on the cusp of her 74th birthday, she decided against working Election Day.

At greater risk because of her age, the Bronxville, New York, woman has tried to minimize her exposure to COVID-19. A friend died earlier this year due to the virus.

“Our whole family has been very serious about all of the restrictions,” she said. “We have not gone out much at all.”

Richard Willson of Hagertown, Maryland, offered the same sentiment. He has seen working at the polls the past 12 years as a way to live out his dedication to democratic principles.

But not this year.

Richard Willson, 73, declined to work as an election judge this year because of his concerns about COVID-19. He lives in Hagerstown.

“I felt that being an election judge in an in-person election was an unsafe practice,” Willson said. “I’m in reasonably good health, but at 73 years old, I’m definitely in one of those categories of people that should take extra precautions.” 

Across the country, particularly in parts of the hard-hit Northeast, local boards of elections have struggled to find workers this fall to man polling sites amid the pandemic.

It has led states to expand call outs for more poll watchers, efforts that have included sending out postcards and social media alerts to encourage people to sign up to help. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would call up the National Guard if need be to help at the polls.

More:Not old enough to vote, but old enough to help: How teens are helping to avert an election crisis

In other states, election boards had to cut down on the number of voting sites to address the shortage.

In Delaware, the state is still recruiting for about 700 of the roughly 3,200 positions it needs to fill before voting starts for president and other state races. New York said it has about 70% of the workers it will need outside New York City for Election Day.

“It’s been a little more challenging this year,” Delaware Elections Commissioner Anthony Albence said. “We’ve been doing other, additional areas of recruitment in addition to what we normally do.”

The call for poll workers, which are paid positions, has produced something else, though: more younger people willing to step up to help in a crucial presidential election.

And others said they are willing to take the risk of being at the polls — which will be heavily sanitized along with other COVID safety steps — in order to ensure a fair election so everyone’s vote is counted.

In Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s battlegrounds, York County voting technology coordinator Casey Brady said his county has about 450 new poll worker applicants waiting in the wings.   

Some counties, such as Philadelphia, might be struggling to attract workers, but Brady said that’s not the case in York.

“Comparatively, we’ve got an embarrassment of riches,” he said.  

Although COVID-19 continues to affect daily life, Brady said there has been a return to “some normalcy” in Pennsylvania and that includes the election.

“We’re in much better shape than the spring,” he said.

The hunt for poll workers

The USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group canvassed New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware on whether it will be able to meet the demands at the polls this year.

States offered mixed responses.

With an expected record number of absentee ballots due to COVID-19, elections officials across the region said, in some cases, they are doing fine with getting enough poll watchers.

But others said challenges remain, particularly as they will need to hire more workers than usual to help sanitize each machine and equipment between uses and have other staff make sure voters are keeping socially distanced when they arrive.

They also could be record voting that, even with more absentee ballots, could make election sites more busy than usual.

Westchester County in New York usually has about 4,500 poll workers on Election Day every year, but may need another 500 this year, said Democratic elections commissioner Reggie LaFayette.

So far, about 3,600 people signed up.

More:Talks to update Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law show signs of life among statehouse Republicans

“I’m concerned because people being afraid to work,” LaFayette said.

Once selected, candidates in New York go through a 3-hour certification and a one-hour orientation class. Potential workers are paid $25 to attend the in-person classes.

In New Jersey, the 2020 elections have been plagued by problems like duplicate ballots, alleged voter fraud and ballots burning in a mail truck fire.

Workers check the labels and ballots at the Dutchess County Board of Elections in Poughkeepsie Oct. 1, 2020.

But finding poll workers is not one of them.

Election officials said counties have been flooded with requests, with applicants far outnumbering the number of positions that need to be filled.

“We’re getting a ton of interest,” said Jamie Sheehan-Willis, chair of the Bergen County Board of Elections. “Everybody wants to be a poll worker.”

In states where more poll workers are needed, elections officials encouraged them to call their local boards.

New Jersey needs fewer workers because it plans to limit in-person voting and have fewer election sites, which Gov. Phil Murphy has said is vital to curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Hudson County, with 395,095 voters, normally uses up to 4,600 poll workers to staff its roughly 400 polling places. This year, with only about 100 polling places open, they only need 3,200 workers.

Still, the number of poll workers isn’t going down in proportion to the number of polling places, officials said, because they are hiring more poll workers per location.

Voting machines will only be available to voters with disabilities. Other voters who show up at the polls to vote on Election Day must fill out provisional ballots, which require more time to explain and fill out — and thus more workers.

“I don’t think I’m panicked about anything,” said Dorene Mandity, the elections director in Beaver County, Pa., said when it comes to having enough workers. “Right now, I feel good.”

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Why some poll workers are taking the risk

Masks, socially distancing and stepped up sanitizing will happen at polling places to guard against COVID, elections officials said.

The precautions have made some poll watchers feel safe ahead of doing the job this year, which includes making sure people sign in correctly to vote and answering any questions.

Election boards will be the ones to ensure no votes are double counted and no one is voting by both absentee and in person.

Polls need to have an equal amount of registered Democrats and Republicans.

In Monroe County near Rochester, one postcard to Republicans read: “WE NEED REPUBLICANS to ensure a fair and honest Election on November 3rd! Do your part! Sign up to work at the Polls!”

It worked: The county has gotten enough workers after having a shortage a few weeks ago.

Sarah Lazzari from Hartsdale, New York, is a first time election poll worker in Westchester County. Here she is pictured at her home, Oct. 1, 2020.

In Westchester, Sarah Lazzari got a postcard and dismissed the idea right away. But after further consideration, she said she felt compelled to step up.

Realizing older poll workers might fear working this year, the healthy 38-year-old with said it was her civic duty. She’s never done it before.

“It was just necessary, they need people,” Lazzari, of Greenburgh, said.

“I don’t have any underlying health conditions. I should be one of those people who’s stepping up.”

She said her only concern on Election Day is if there are people who attempt to vote without masks on or wear it incorrectly.

Kalicha Cameron, 43, of Nanuet, Rockland County, has been a poll worker for a decade, and she will do it again this year, saying she feels comfortable after working during the New York primary in June.

“We took safety measures. They give us gloves, they gave a new pen to each voter, they give us sanitizers, wipes and masks,” Cameron said.

Kalicha Cameron of Nanuet, N.Y. has been a poll worker on election day for the last ten years. Cameron, photographed Sept. 30., 2020, will be working at the polls for the upcoming presidential election. She will be working numerous days, both for early voting and on election day.

The poll site didn’t allow voters without masks. They had a box of masks ready for those who came without wearing face coverings — and they needed them.

“So many of the voters did not have a mask. We kept giving them a mask and we had like a pack of 50 and all 50 were gone,” she said. “I was like, why are so many people coming out without their masks?”

Cameron, a mental health therapy aide at the Rockland Psychiatric Center, said she was not worried about getting sick herself working the polls.

“We are taking all the precautions,” she said.

More:Tracking coronavirus cases in Delaware

More:Should votes mailed on Election Day be counted? Delaware court to decide

Concerns at the polls and safety steps

Elections officials are concerned about the safety of their workers and voters as Nov. 3 nears.

COVID-19 infection rates have started to grow in some communities, including in the lower Hudson Valley in New York. And Election Day is still weeks away.

In Maryland, local elections officials warned the state Board of Elections in August that an impending election judge shortage constituted “an emergency situation.” 

The state at that time was short nearly 15,000 election judges, and local boards said they would not be able to staff the full roster of polling places. 

So the state drastically cut the number of voting locations. Now, instead of the usual 1,600 polling places, Maryland will have more than 300 “vote centers” — large, central locations where any registered voter in that jurisdiction can cast a ballot. 

The change worked.

Maryland now has enough election judges to staff all of the vote centers and early voting locations, said David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials. 

Gov. Larry Hogan, who initially wanted all of the state’s polling places to be open on Election Day, has encouraged state employees to work as election judges by offering administrative leave for each day of service, and reached out to colleges and universities in an effort to recruit more judges. 

Becky Parma of Ingram, Pa. will be working at her local polling place on Election Day.

Nikki Charlson, the deputy administrator of the state Board of Elections, said the state saw “a huge outpouring of offers of assistance from voters” after calls went out for more election judges. 

“The local boards of elections have enough election judges to fully staff all of the vote centers and have a nice, healthy bench from which to pull if they need to,” Charlson said. 

One person serving there is Marilyn Ashcraft, who has been working as an election judge since the ’90s. 

The 68-year-old from Washington County, Maryland, said she has no reservations about going to the polls. 

“I thought, well, they would probably need people now more than ever,” she said. “There’s always been a shortage of people that would work. We’ve never had extra people.” 

Ashcraft feels it’s important to offer in-person voting as an option. 

“To actually have places for people to go and physically vote, it’s more assuring to everybody,” she said. 

More:Maryland plans to open fewer polling places. What does that mean for rural voters?

Despite COVID, new election workers sign up

York County resident Jessica Buck, 79, is in her 14th year as a judge of elections in Shrewsbury, Pa..

She’s more concerned about confusion among voters over provisional and mail-in ballots than coronavirus-related issues.   

“I dread it,” she said. “I really dread it.”  

Becky Parme, a 61-year-old Allegheny County resident in Pennsylvania, had signed up earlier this year to be a poll worker, but was wavering because her husband is battling pancreatic cancer and other health issues.   

“I’m really torn. I want to,” said Parme, an Ingram resident. “I really want to be there and see what’s going on.”

She too talked about her concerns over the high emotions and voter confusion that will likely heighten the tension in polling places, as well as voters who might show up armed.

“Do I want to have to put up with that?” she said.

But Parme has ultimately decided to do it, citing reports about Republican-controlled legislatures, such as Pennsylvania’s, trying to exert oversight over election results. 

“This craziness made up my mind to work the polls,” she said. 

Cara Gaudino, 40, is working the polls in November in Delaware for the first time in about 20 years.

A mother of two, she’s usually pretty busy on Election Day taking care of her kids who are off from school and also making time to go vote. 

Cara Gaudino of Pike Creek, Del., will be working on election day at a polling station. This will be the first election day poll work the mother of two has undertaken.

But when she heard that the state had a shortage of poll workers because a big population of the workforce are senior citizens, she decided, “Well, somebody’s gotta do it.”

“It’s not really fair for them to be out there right now … taking on the burden and exposing themselves,” Gaudino said. “I’m happy to do it. I think it’s going to be a long day, but a really important job.”

She’ll be filling in for people like Marj Johnson, a 79-year-old North Wilmington, Delaware, resident who has been working the polls since she retired in 2006.

In a normal year, Johnson sees the job as an “obligation” in the democratic process. But last spring, when the virus just became rampant, she made the hard decision to sit this year out. While she lives alone, she has family close by.

“I just didn’t want to risk that health issue, for myself or for them,” Johnson said.

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy covers women and power for the USA Today Network Northeast. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @SwapnaVenugopal or email her at svenugop@lohud.com

Madeleine O’Neill covers the Maryland State House for the USA TODAY Network. She can be reached at moneill@gannett.com or on Twitter at @maddioneill.

Joseph Spector is the New York state editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany

Sarah Gamard is a state government reporter for the News Journal in Delaware. She can be reached at sgamard@delawareonline.com or followed on Twitter at @SarahGamard

Terrence McDonald covers New Jersey state government for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at mcdonaldt@northjersey.com