- Polling places in the Republican 11th Congressional District second primary on June 23 were well-supplied with masks, hand sanitizer, and other safety supplies.
- While election workers expressed confidence in safety measures and most workers answered the call to serve in the second primary, a significant minority refused to do so due to coronavirus fears.
- Election officials will need to devote resources to ensure that there are enough election workers and safety equipment for the November general election.
The June 23 Republican 11th Congressional District second primary gave election officials an opportunity to test methods of conducting voting safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
So, how did they do?
To get a better understanding of how voting is conducted with coronavirus precautions in place, I observed voting in two counties in the 11th district: Jackson and McDowell. I chose those counties because they use different voting methods; Jackson uses ballot marking devices (touchscreens) while McDowell uses hand-marked ballots. I observed two polling places in each of those counties.
Observing coronavirus precautions in precinct polling places
People walking into those polling places would have noticed several changes due to coronavirus precautions. All the poll workers wore masks; some wore them continuously while others only wore them when voters (or an observer) came to the polling place. Many poll workers also wore gloves. The tables with the poll books, where voters check-in before receiving their ballots, also had plastic shields. The floor at each location was marked to promote social distancing.
Polling places were also well-stocked with hand sanitizer and masks for voters. Some voters came into the polling places with their own masks while others used masks given to them by poll workers. None of the voters I observed refused to wear a mask (although one mightily struggled to get his on properly) and poll workers at all four precincts said that everyone who was asked to wear a mask, did.
Due to an expected low turnout, Jackson County combined voting locations. However, each precinct maintained its own poll books, workers (although fewer), and tabulators, meaning that the number of workers at each location increased. I visited the Canada and River precincts’ polling place at the Tuckasegee VFW on the bank of the West Fork Tuckasegee River and the Cashiers and Glenville precincts’ polling place at the Cashiers Recreation Center.
Counties, like Jackson, that use touchscreen voting systems have to discourage voters from actually touching the touchscreens due to the coronavirus. To that end, polling places in Jackson County provided cotton swabs for voters to use to mark their choice. However, I observed that the weapon of choice for voting on the touchscreen in both locations was the ballpoint pen with stylus. While no voting locations were giving out “I voted” stickers this year, voters were able to keep those pens since only one pen was used per voter.
McDowell County had a different strategy to handle the low turnout; they opened all polling places but reduced the number of workers per location from the normal 5-7 to 3. Each voter there was also given his or her own pen to mark ballots.
Voting booths were cleaned after each vote to help prevent surface transmission of coronavirus. Given the low turnout in a second primary, that was not a problem. However, those procedures could cause long lines in the general election. Loraine Creson, a judge at the Turkey Cove precinct in McDowell County, acknowledged that, saying “It (the general election in November) will be a long, long day. But so be it to keep people safe.”
The work is good, but will there be enough workers?
Can those poll workers do their job safely?
All of the 19 poll workers I spoke with during the June 23 balloting believe that the procedures put in place will make voting safe for themselves and voters. The coronavirus mitigation training they received, along with the precautions noted earlier in this article, bolstered that confidence.
Of course, there is a selection bias involved with asking people who chose to do election work despite coronavirus concerns. People with less confidence in their ability to conduct election work safely would certainly be less likely to volunteer to do election work.
Another factor to consider is the age of many poll workers. I asked the poll workers at the polling places their ages. Here are the results:
- Canada and River precincts (Jackson): 70, 77, 65, 50, 76
- Cashiers and Glenville precincts (Jackson): 49, “over 70,” 77, 81, 75, 75, 31, 67
- Turkey Cove precinct (McDowell): 70, 72, 71
- Marion #2 precinct (McDowell): 79, “eightyish,” 42
The average age is in the upper-60s (with a median age in the early-70s). That is in line with data produced by the Pew Research Center. Older people tend to be at higher risk of serious illness or death from the coronavirus. It stands to reason that some of those election workers may be too afraid to work the polls due to the coronavirus.
I also contacted election officials in the 17 counties in the 11th district to get an idea of how coronavirus fears affected their ability to retain and recruit election workers. Officials from 11 of those 17 counties replied to my request. The total numbers of election workers in the second primary, past workers who refused to work the second primary due to the coronavirus, and new workers recruited for the second primary in those 11 counties are listed in table 1. The numbers include both early and election day workers.
The roughly 176 election workers who declined to work in the second primary represented almost a quarter of the total workforce in the surveyed counties. While those counties were able to meet the staffing needs for the second primary, that was partially due to there being less of a need for workers due to lower turnout for second primaries.
There will be a greater need for workers in the general election. For example, while Buncombe County used 248 workers for early voting and election day in the second primary, it will need over 500 workers for the general election. Part of H1169, passed by the General Assembly in June, provides $28 million for state and county election officials to help them prepare for the general election. Clearly, those officials will need to devote a significant part of those resources to recruiting and training election workers.
The 11th congressional district second primary demonstrated that North Carolina can safely conduct in-person voting this fall. It also demonstrated that the NC State Board of Elections and county boards will need to devote resources to ensuring voting sites are fully staffed this fall. If they fail to do that, there will be chaos this November.
What you can do: Contact your county board of elections to apply to work as an election worker. There is a need for both early voting and election day workers.