NEWS

Potential poll worker shortage worries elections officials

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 7/15/20

An anticipated shortage in poll workers for the September primary and November general election is among several key concerns facing local elections officials as the summer wears on. "It really is our No. 1 concern," City Registrar

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NEWS

Potential poll worker shortage worries elections officials

Posted

An anticipated shortage in poll workers for the September primary and November general election is among several key concerns facing local elections officials as the summer wears on.

“It really is our No. 1 concern,” City Registrar Nick Lima told the Board of Canvassers last week regarding the poll workers issue.

During the board’s July 9 meeting, Lima outlined four “big picture items” that he and other elections officials across Rhode Island are watching closely as this year’s votes draw ever closer – emergency voting rules, available poll workers, the use of polling locations and how mail balloting is utilized.

Poll workers lead the list, he said, because the city needs an available force of roughly 600 workers – at least 300 for the general election, and possibly a “couple of dozen fewer” for the primary – in order to meet minimum staffing requirements across its nearly 30 polling places.

On top of that, the city typically maintains a backup force of at least 10 percent to fill call-out vacancies on election days.

As staff has started contacting poll workers this year, Lima said, the call-out rate is already “hovering around 10 percent.” As the elections draw closer, he said, “I can easily see it being 25 percent of our current force calling out.”

There are various reasons for the existing or likely call-outs, Lima said, but the pandemic is almost universally the underlying source of concern.

Some older poll workers have decided to stay away based on the advice of family members of doctors, while others with a sick or vulnerable loved one at home will not risk the potential exposure to COVID-19. Lima also noted that people currently receiving unemployment might risk losing some of their benefit for taking on the temporary work at the polls, although there is hope the state will act to provide an exemption in those cases.

At present, Lima estimates the city will be short roughly 100 poll workers for each of the upcoming ballots. He said his office plans to launch a recruitment effort in the weeks ahead to grow the poll worker ranks – including newspaper ads and outreach to Cranston Public Schools, since students 16 or older can become pre-registered to vote and thus eligible to serve – although that alone will likely not be enough to bridge the anticipated gap. Part of the challenge, he said, is securing the needed workers with enough time to provide the necessary training.

“We can get 10 or 20 extra poll workers through recruitment … I think all told, though, the odds of us getting an extra 100 poll workers for each election from those efforts are pretty slim,” he said.

Lima said the state’s Board of Election has thus far been “very lacking” in terms of guidance or assistance with the poll worker issue. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s elections task force has offered some guidance, he said, but it is focused mostly on recruitment efforts.

Contingency plans are being considered. On the city level, Lima said, the “only other option immediately available to us would be to use part of the city workforce to supplement our poll workers,” but he called that “an option of last resort” given the disruption in would cause in other municipal departments.

Still, he said that possibility would be discussed with Mayor Allan Fung’s administration – and that if the city finds itself with a severe poll worker shortage in the days before the September primary, “we may not have a choice.”

On the state level, Lima said, the possibility has been raised of utilizing the National Guard to fill poll worker vacancies in various communities on an off-duty basis. That is “not being seriously considered by the state at this time,” however.

Additional information and applications for prospective poll workers can be found through the Canvassing Department’s page on the city’s website, cranstonri.gov, or by calling 780-3127. Pay for poll workers ranges from $175 to $225.

In a statement July 10, Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins, a Republican candidate for mayor, expressed concern over the potential poll worker shortage and applauded Lima and the Board of Canvassers “for their realistic and pro-active view of these issues.”

“As candidates, we all should be supportive of their efforts and try and identify poll workers who could work for them on Election Day,” the statement reads. “I am concerned that at the state level the General Assembly, Secretary of State and Board of Elections are moving way too slow to give direction and regulations for the local boards of canvassers. We are sixty days away from the September primary and a state task force is still debating issues like early voting, mail ballots, and witness and notary requirements … The time for task forces to recommend reforms and changes was in April when it was clear this pandemic would affect the election cycle. We are now trying to put out a fire while standing in the middle of it.”

***

Election day poll staffing is far from the only issue facing Cranston and other communities across Rhode Island. Here’s a look at what else Lima and his counterparts across the state are watching:

* Lima pointed to calls to reform the 20-day emergency voting process, one governed by rules he called “very antiquated” and not designed to accommodate the large volume seen in recent elections. In 2016, he said, hundreds of people sought to cast emergency ballots ahead of the election, and “that could easily be eclipsed by a factor of two or three” this year.

A Board of Elections-backed bill was submitted to the General Assembly to modernize the process, but it immediately drew the ire of Common Cause Rhode Island, the ACLU and other groups. Its provision shortening the emergency ballot window from 20 to 12 days prior to the election drew particular criticism.

A revised version of the bill – which restores the 20-day window, among other changes – has since been introduced, and Lima said he is optimistic that it will pass the legislature and provide “significant relief” to local elections officials.

“It’s the only piece of legislation being actively considered by the General Assembly that will help us for this election cycle,” Lima noted.

Essentially, the measure would eliminate many of the paper-intensive aspects of emergency voting and allow voters to check in electronically at City Hall before inserting their ballot directly into a voting machine.

* The possibility of an extremely high volume of mail ballots is another concern for local elections officials, and it remains unclear at this point whether the state will repeat the step it took for the June presidential preference primary – when mail ballot applications were mailed to every registered voter in Rhode Island – for the primary and general election.

The Board of Elections last week opted to recommend against sending mail ballot applications to all voters for the primary election.

Since then, a bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would require mail ballot applications be sent to all voters for both the September and November votes. The measure – backed by House leadership – would also create a temporary system in which the Secretary of State’s office, rather than local canvassing boards, would serve as the central processing hub for returned applications. Additionally, it would waive certification, witness and notary requirements for mail ballots and require that drop boxes be placed at city and town halls.

The legislation’s prospects appear murky, though, with Senate President Dominick Ruggerio saying he does not favor the proposal.

“It came out of nowhere. We had no idea it was coming,” Lima said Tuesday of the House bill. He said it “could potentially solve a lot of the problems we’re talking about.”

Regarding the support from House leadership but the quick opposition from the Senate’s president, he added: “It was at one moment uplifting but at another moment disheartening.”

Lima last week said the centralization of the mail ballot application process is a key reform he has supported, and the Board of Canvassers at his recommendation gave its backing to that proposal.

According to Lima, Cranston received roughly 12,000 returned mail ballot applications for the presidential primary. Of those, approximately 11,200 were processed. Many of the remaining applications, he said, were empty or improperly filled out.

Processing those applications, he said, required nearly continuous work on the part of elections staff and workers borrowed from other departments over the court of 2½ weeks.

Lima estimated that a primary election conducted mostly by mail could produce between 15,000 and 20,000 mail ballot applications. The general election, he said, would likely produce between 20,000 and 30,000 requests for mail ballots.

That kind of volume, he said, “will very quickly cripple us” and render local elections staff unable to focus on various other aspects of voting preparation.

“We just don’t have the ability to scale up any higher than we already did, and what we did nearly killed us,” he said.

Lima said in addition to legislative action, Gov. Gina Raimondo could provide relief in terms of mail ballot application processing through an executive order.

* Cranston is in good position relative to many other communities across the state in terms of available polling locations, Lima said last week, a fact attributable to the city’s high number of schools and function halls.

Concerns remain, however, when it comes to the date of the Sept. 8 primary, which falls immediately after the Labor Day holiday. Lima has long called for the state to change the date, citing the high costs and logistical challenges involved in setting up polling places on the holiday. He estimated the process could cost Cranston roughly $10,000 in overtime.

The November election is less of a concern, he said, because there will not be a similar timing issue and there is additional time to prepare.

Social distancing and safety measures at polling places in the upcoming elections are also likely to look different from the presidential preference primary, for which just two polling locations were open.

“Protecting our poll workers, protecting the voters is paramount, but there’s limitations to what we can do, and we don’t have an army at our disposal here,” Lima said.

Protective screening was created for the June primary vote, but Lima said a number of factors – shortage of materials, lack of storage space and the time involved in making the devices – make creating screening for all of the city’s polling places unfeasible. He said the city has asked the Board of Elections to provide full plastic visors for poll workers as an added safety precaution in lieu of the screening.

The Board of Canvassers last week approved an update list of polling places, and most are familiar to city voters.

In Ward 2, the former American Legion Post on Legion Way remains a polling location, although it is now known as Templo Biblico after being sold to a religious organization in April. The American Legion identifier and address will still be listed on voter information.

Also in Ward 2, the CLCF building has been chosen as a replacement for Budlong Manor. The CLCF building is actually just over the line in Ward 6, but Lima said it is represents a significant improvement and was the only viable option in the area.

In Ward 3, the Cranston Senior Enrichment Center on Cranston Street has been approved as a permanent replacement for Arlington Manor. The Pastore Center, meanwhile, will remain as a replacement for Bain Middle School following its use in 2018.

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