With two months until Election Day, the U.S. faces a shortage of one critical resource: poll workers. Thanks to the threat of COVID-19, many of them — especially seniors — will likely stay home. Without sufficient staffing at polling stations, voters may have to wait for hours before casting their ballots, or see voting sites closed altogether — a prospect that risks disenfranchising citizens in low-income communities hit hard by the pandemic.
According to voting rights advocates, the country needs at least 250,000 new poll workers to handle the expected demand for in-person voting. Meeting that goal requires immediate action from election officials. That includes boosting poll worker pay, expanding recruitment drives aimed at younger volunteers and encouraging state agencies to give workers time off to serve.
Even before the pandemic, the country’s supply of poll workers was dwindling. More than two-thirds of jurisdictions reported difficulty recruiting enough staff in the 2018 midterm elections, which involved more than 600,000 poll workers. To fill these needs, local officials draw heavily from older citizens and retirees who have time to get trained and work all-day shifts on Election Day. Of those who served in 2018, 57% were over the age of 60.
The coronavirus has made this demographic imbalance a crisis. During this year’s primaries, concerns about infection caused waves of volunteers to back out, forcing election officials to close polling stations. In Milwaukee, which reduced polling places from 182 in 2016 to five for April’s presidential primary, voter turnout declined by 8.6 percentage points.
By making in-person voting less accessible, the dearth of poll workers could swing the outcome in closely contested states. Advocacy organizations like More Than A Vote, an initiative targeting Black voters and led by LeBron James, are trying to raise awareness about shortages and jump-start recruitment. Another group, Power the Polls, is promoting a web portal that helps volunteers sign up and connects them with local election boards.
These efforts are welcome, but given the urgency of the situation, policy makers need to go further. States should consider offering bonuses for those who work in high-volume polling stations, for instance. Age restrictions should be eased to allow high school students who pass a training course to work as pages and provide logistical support. And state agencies should grant government workers paid administrative leave to train and serve, as a measure approved by Florida earlier this year does.
Congress needs to do its part, too. The House has passed a $3.6 billion package to help states prepare for the election that, among other things, would help cover the cost of protective equipment for poll workers. Republicans in the Senate should drop their resistance and approve the funding. It’s the least they could do for those willing to risk their health to help their fellow citizens vote.