Facing a shortage of poll workers and seeking to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Monroe County elections officials are looking to cut back on polling sites for the June 23 primary and are encouraging voters to mail in their votes with absentee ballots.
The typical poll worker, locally and nationally, skews older and falls into an age bracket considered to be at heightened risk for infection. Consequently, fewer are signing up for duty.
In Monroe County, many people who worked the polls in the past declined to sign up this year, according to the county Board of Elections. A board training session for 300 poll workers in late March drew less than half as many registrants and was ultimately canceled.
“We know that there is going to be a large population that will not be working,” said LaShana Boose, the acting Democratic board commissioner. “How the election looks for 2020 is also going to change. We may not even have as many polling sites.”
New York’s June 23 primary could prove to be among the most unusual elections in recent history. Monroe County Democrats have a packed lineup of contests, with presidential, Congressional, state, and county races on the ballot.
In any other year, thousands of voters could be expected to circulate through polling stations. But as COVID-19 spreads through the county and state, officials want to avoid people gathering and moving in relatively close quarters.
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an order on April 8 temporarily relaxing the rules on absentee ballots. The order allows anyone with an illness or worried about contracting COVID-19 to apply for and receive an absentee ballot.
In other words, anyone should be able to get an absentee ballot by checking the temporary illness box on the application.
“New Yorkers shouldn't have to choose between their health and their civic duty,” Cuomo said in a tweet.
While Cuomo framed his remarks around voters, Boose hoped that the governor’s order relaxing absentee ballot rules will ultimately curb the need for poll workers altogether because so few are raising their hands.
It isn’t hard to see why.
Eighty percent of COVID-19 patients who have died were over the age of 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, 56 percent of poll workers nationwide in the 2016 election were 61 years old or more. A quarter were over 71.
Boose said the national elections statistics gel with what she sees locally, where poll workers tend to be in their 60s and 70s.
The Rochester-area chapter of the League of Women Voters has supported expanded voting by mail for years, as has the statewide organization. On March 19, the chapter issued a letter to the county elections commissioners urging them to find ways to get absentee ballots in the hands of voters to guard against coronavirus spread.
“It’s absolute insanity to have people going out to the polls and putting not only themselves, but the poll workers at risk,” Judy Sternberg, co-president of the Rochester-area League of Women Voters chapter, said.
Sternberg pointed to the April 7 primary in Wisconsin as an example of what officials ought to avoid.
There, a series of court decisions left many Wisconsonites unable to vote by absentee ballot. Polls were overcrowded and the pandemic led to a massive drop in the state’s poll workers. In Milwaukee, a city of 590,000, there were only five polling sites.
The results were well-documented. Photos of facemasked would-be voters waiting in line to cast their ballots flooded social media sites. A New York Times report on the election said it was “almost certain to be tarred as illegitimate.”
Sternberg cast the election as a cautionary tale for New York, and emphasized the need for easy access to absentee ballots.
“This is one of the reasons why in other places there are fewer polls open,” Sternberg said. “Perhaps there simply aren’t numbers to staff them.”
Poll workers were already becoming fewer and farther between prior to the pandemic.
In 2016, two-thirds of respondents to the Elections Assistance Commission’s biennial survey reported struggling to find enough poll workers. In 2012, it was less than half.
In light of the shortage, Boose said the county was taking necessary steps to ensure voters can cast their ballot.
“It’s our duty to make sure that every voter has a right to vote in whatever capacity they wish,” Boose said.
Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been corrected to note that voters who are applying for an absentee ballot should check the temporary illness box.