Despite pandemic, some Virginia registrars report surge of poll workers

2020 Election

RICHMOND, Va. — Several places in Virginia say they’ve seen a surge in people applying to be Election Day-workers, despite initial concerns there would be a shortage.

The U.S. is facing a nationwide poll workers shortage, Gov. Ralph Northam said in a Tweet posted in early September urging Virginians to apply for the position. Some districts expected a shortage because they anticipated high turnout. Poll workers fulfill a variety of part-time and full-time roles, from assisting with absentee ballot distribution, answering phone calls, supervising early voting, and helping at the polls on Election Day. 

Before polls opened last week, Virginia Beach said it needed 1,200 poll workers this year instead of the 800 they usually have, according to CBS-3 (WTKR-TV). 

On the other hand, Arlington County, posted online that it has filled “beyond capacity” its need for poll workers in its 54 precincts. No shortage of poll workers is expected in Fairfax County, which will have more than 3,800 election officers to work the county’s 243 polling locations, about half of which are first-time poll workers, according to Brian Worthy, a Fairfax County spokesperson. The county’s 3,800 workers this year is about 500 more than it had in the last election, and extra staff is on hand to process the mail-in ballots.

“Unlike other jurisdictions that I’ve heard may be having difficulty recruiting election officers, Fairfax County has experienced a very strong interest from people who want to serve,” Worthy stated over email. “In fact, we’ve had about ten times the normal number of people apply to become election officers.” 

Recruiting poll workers is also not an issue in Orange County, located 20 miles from Charlottesville. Donna Harpold, the county’s director of elections and general registrar, said she doesn’t know if being in a smaller county impacts volunteer availability compared to Northern Virginia.

The U.S. is facing a nationwide poll workers shortage, Gov. Ralph Northam said in a Tweet posted in early September urging Virginians to apply for the position.

“They obviously have the population advantage, but that may also lead to people being more wary of serving due to exposure concerns,” Harpold wrote in an email.

 Lisa Betterton, general registrar and director of elections in Isle of Wight, which has roughly 37,000 residents, said the Hampton Roads county has plenty of poll workers.

Poll workers and voters have expressed concern over potential exposure to the COVID-19 if polls are crowded on Election Day. Many people who volunteer at polling places across the country are retirees, the most at-risk demographic for serious complications and death from the disease.

Election officials in Washington D.C. decided this year that working at a poll will count toward the community service hours required to graduate high school in the district.

Breaking with the tradition of voting on Election Day, Virginia’s top officials cast their votes on Sept. 18, the first day polls were open. Northam emphasized voters will have “several safe and easy ways” to vote. Over 164,000 residents hit the polls within the first week, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Virginia has allocated federal CARES Act funding to ensure that election officers have personal protective equipment and Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed, according to Northam’s office.

Voters are required to wear masks. In order to limit physical interaction between individuals and to avoid voters sharing pens, Fairfax County will provide voters with “I voted” pens that they can use to fill out their ballots and keep instead of offering stickers.

The General Assembly passed several bills in the spring to make voting easier, such as turning Election Day into a state holiday, no excuse required to vote absentee and allowing early voting 45 days ahead of the election. Residents may vote early at their local registrar’s office from Sept. 18 to Oct. 31, or request a mail-in absentee ballot until Oct. 23, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

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