As COVID-19 Keeps Some Election Volunteers Home, Others Step Up

Oct 16, 2020

In past elections, poll workers have typically been older Virginians. But since they’re more at-risk from COVID-19, many are staying home.

Elections officials have scrambled to deal with the changing staffing landscape  and new volunteers are stepping up.

For the past 22 years, Tim Snider has been an election officer for the City of Charlottesville. But not this year. "I was reluctant to do so because my age and for other considerations, because of the prevalence of the COVID virus," Snider admitted. "It was a very difficult choice, very difficult for a variety of reasons."

The mustached retired attorney is 73, so he had to weigh his age, and his health, against his love for being an election officer. And all the hype around the 2020 elections made it harder to walk away.  "For an election official, a high turnout is good because it makes the day a little quicker."

But luckily for him, many voters are trying to make sure the polls are fully staffed.  "They have had an unprecedented number of volunteers," Snider noted, "which made it a little easier for me to withdraw."

General elections usually attract more people applying to work as an election officer. The Virginia Department of Elections has been advertising for election officers. In places like Culpeper County, where James Clements is the director of elections, citizens have answered. “The response from the public to the call for officers and what they can see as a need for election officers this year, has been spectacular."

A spokesperson for the Department of Elections said they’ve had at least 20,000 volunteers and localities have well beyond what is needed. But they aren’t turning anyone away just yet.   "We're telling the latest batch of volunteers to just sort of hang tight until we can resolve exactly what our needs are going to be on Election Day," James Clements said.

COVID-19 makes for such an unpredictable situation that administrators like Clements are making backup plans. "Needing a pool of a hundred officers means that we actually probably need a pool that's closer to 150% of that. It's not just that someone may be sick on Election Day. We deal with that every fall. It's the idea that somebody may have been exposed and is now in quarantine."

That’s something Winston Barham, an election officer in Charlottesville has on his mind too. "I am always worried that we're going to be understaffed. That is a really moving target."

Across Virginia, staffing anxieties might be already solved by the time Election Day rolls around. "I think people are taking advantage of the changes to the law and are also taking advantage of early voting," Barham said.

Virginians have been voting early in such high numbers that it could be relieving pressure on election day. In Alexandria, 9,600 voters cast their ballot in-person by the end of September. In 2016, about 13,500 people did that the whole absentee voting period. In Chesapeake, just under 17,000 people voted early in 2016. By October 2nd of this year, that number was 42,000. 

Registrars that responded to our requests said they were fully staffed for election day. And Barham says that they could serve after, if needed.  "I have never been called in for a recount, but I would, if I were called I would be willing to serve. Since we are, sworn officers, that's something we are capable of doing that."

Barham and other officers are paid for their work - it's not just a volunteer job. But there’s a civic element to it that he finds appealing.  "It's been a real joy to help people who need help as well as just anyone to cast the free and fair vote to which they are entitled as a citizen of this democracy," Barham said. "I take it as a very strict responsibility, to help people do what they are entitled to do."

In the 2016 election, just under 4 million people voted in Virginia. 1.7 million have already voted this election season, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.