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County Auditors Rush To Recruit A New Generation Of Poll Workers Amid COVID Concerns

Poll workers must take extra precautions this year to protect themselves against the coronavirus. Election experts fear a massive shortage of workers at the polls in November.
John Minchillo
County auditors are rushing to recruit more poll workers to replace those who are sitting out this election due to concerns about the coronavirus.

Auditors across Iowa are rushing to recruit and train poll workers ahead of November, as coronavirus concerns sideline scores of longtime election workers. While many Iowans are stepping up to meet the need, some auditors worry COVID-19 could still disrupt their operations right up to Election Day.

“It seems too risky”

Vicki Edelnant began working the polls in Cedar Falls in 2014, and soon convinced her husband Jay to help out as well.

For the retired educators, it just seemed like a good thing to do.

The long hours could be tough, but Vicki says they enjoyed being involved in the voting process.

“I like doing the election. I don’t like the long day, but I always feel good,” Vicki Edelnant said. “And many people come through the line and are complimentary, say, ‘thank you for serving today’."

But this year, the Edelnants are sitting it out because of the coronavirus.

“Well that’s my fault, I think primarily,” Jay Edelnant said. “I’m old and I’m immunocompromised and it seems too risky.”

Between their age and underlying conditions, Vicki agrees they just can’t risk it.

“We have kids and grandkids that I worry about,” Vicki Edlenant said. “And my own health, I mean I have diabetes and I just thought that it wasn’t safe.”

Poll workers across the country have come to the same conclusion.

As a group they tend to be older, putting them at a higher risk for worse outcomes if they were to get COVID-19.

Even some younger Iowans are worried about their own health or bringing the virus home to their families.

That’s left secretaries of state and county election officials across the country rushing to find a new generation of poll workers.

A new generation of poll workers

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate has been recruiting volunteers for months to help county auditors hire some 10,000 poll workers across the state.

“Many of our regular poll workers are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. They do a great job for us every election cycle,” Pate said in a recruitment video targeted at younger Iowans. “This year, I’m asking them to stand down. That means we need you to stand up.”

As of mid-September, a spokesman for Pate said some 4,500 Iowans had expressed interest in working through the state’s dedicated recruitment website.

Groups like Iowa Campus Compact are also specifically encouraging college students to sign up.

Executive Director Emily Shields says the organization has hired dedicated staffers to recruit at Drake University and the University of Iowa, with more volunteers working on campuses across the state.

“Students are really committed to staying engaged, to staying as safe as they can and to taking precautions and wearing masks and those kinds of things,” Shields said, “but that not meaning that they don’t get involved at all.”

Jamie Auchenbaugh of Council Bluffs told IPR’s River to River she’s especially motivated to help others exercise their right to vote, because she herself recently had her rights restored, after serving time on a felony charge. Now, Auchenbaugh has applied to be a poll worker.

“So many people don’t exercise their right to vote. And so many people think, ‘oh my vote doesn’t count.' And my hope is that if they at least see somebody there, or maybe if they’ve never voted before, that I can…they’ll see a friendly face or a younger person that kind of won’t judge them,” Auchenbaugh said. “I can help them do that.”

Sean McRoberts of Iowa City is another voter who has stepped up for the first time.

“I guess I’m willing to take on some of that risk knowing that there’s going to be good preparations in place,” McRoberts said. “I’m going to be pretty mindful of that if they don’t have adequate ventilation, space for people and good protective equipment.”

Agreeing to work the polls can be a complicated decision among families. McRoberts says their wife has diabetes, and they’re considering quarantining after Election Day, just in case.

“We have talked about the possibility of a two week quarantine after I work the polls just to be safe,” they said. “We could figure out a way to do it.”

Fewer poll workers could lead to fewer polling places

Counties are still looking for more Iowans to sign up now, so they’re trained and ready to go ahead of November 3.

“We’ll continue recruiting probably right up until to November 2nd, the day before the election,” said Linn County Auditor Joel Miller.

Miller says the stakes are high: under a state law passed in June, auditors can’t close more than 35 percent of their polling places, preventing mass closures.

Still, he says understaffing a precinct is not an option.

“We’re not going to run a polling place shorthanded because that would lead to lapses in integrity and questions that we just don’t want to deal with,” He said. “We have to have 100 percent staffed polling places on Election Day for that polling place to be operational.”

Some auditors told IPR they feel good about their staffing levels. But even those who are more confident recognized the possibility that the virus could change things come November.

“That’s the wildcard,” Miller said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, if that’s going to scare some people off as we approach general Election Day.”

New poll worker Andrea Love of Des Moines knows coronavirus transmission levels could change between now and November. Iowa already has among the highest rates of new cases per capita in the country, but Love maintains she has no plans of backing out on her commitment. Unless of course, she herself gets COVID-19.

“It is a concern,” she said. “But I’m more concerned about our process and making sure everything goes smoothly and that everybody feels that they’ve been heard, than I am about my own personal possibilities of catching it or anything happening that way.”

She says this election is just too important to sit on the sidelines, even during a global pandemic.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter