By Steve Rosenfeld, Editor, Voting Booth
In 2000, Ion Sancho had a front-row seat to the partisan mayhem and legal posturing surrounding Florida’s presidential recount. The Florida Supreme Court asked Sancho, then supervisor of elections in Florida’s capital, to be its technical adviser—second in charge—of overseeing the recount, which the U.S. Supreme Court abruptly halted in its Bush v. Gore decision, elevating George W. Bush to the presidency.
As the U.S. heads toward 2020’s general election amid a pandemic and President Trump’s continued attacks on voting from home, Sancho has been reviewing trends from the resumed primaries and sees both how Trump and the GOP are positioning the party for another court-decided electoral outcome—and the single remedy that would frustrate those plans.
“The plan that Trump is doing is to denigrate mail ballot voting and force people to show up at the polls on Election Day—and overwhelm the polls so it looks like massive chaos and fraud,” said Sancho, who recalled the “Brooks Brothers riot” by GOP operatives that disrupted Miami’s recount. “But it’s all dependent on overwhelming the polls on Election Day; having people wait in line for five, six, seven hours, and then adding to the cacophony of ‘vote fraud, vote fraud.’ If it’s done smoothly on Election Day, that whole strategy really melts away.”
Since 2020’s primaries and runoffs resumed in April, there has been a historic shift to voting from home with mail-in ballots in many states. The pandemic has also prompted a poll worker exodus and steep reductions in in-person voting sites, especially in swing states. Many voters have waited for hours to cast a ballot, especially in urban centers and communities of color, disenfranchising unknown numbers of voters.
“The reason we are not getting people working the polls is that poll workers, traditionally, are in the center of the target range for COVID-19: 65-to-75-year-old individuals,” said Sancho, who added that the younger people now demonstrating against racist policing should not just be urged to register and vote this fall, but should also enlist as poll workers—especially in cities.
“These young people who are demonstrating in the streets, understanding for the first time that institutional racism is America, these people, if they work the polls, could save the entire elections process,” said Sancho, who ran Leon County’s elections for 28 years. “What if all of the African American students at the historically Black colleges [and universities (HBCUs)]—I know Atlanta has a couple—what if they staffed the polls in Fulton County? Here in Tallahassee, what if FAMU [Florida A&M University] ensured that the African American polls are completely covered on November 3? And you get paid for it.”
“If you do it, you frustrate the plan that Trump has set up to call that there was massive fraud and chaos and try to send this to the courts—to the SCOTUS [Supreme Court of the United States] where they will try to pull off the same thing they did in 2000 on a 5-to-4 vote.”
Sancho, a law school graduate, is thinking more widely about 2020’s general election than many election administrators, who tend to see their jobs as implementing the rules issued by the state. But he is not the only election veteran thinking about staffing the polls this fall. There has been talk in political circles in recent months about the need to recruit a new cadre of poll workers. In recent weeks, a handful of these efforts surfaced.
Washington’s Fair Elections Center released an online poll worker sign-up tool that it hopes will help facilitate a national recruitment campaign. On June 30, a mix of businesses, corporate alliances, entertainment networks and nonprofits announced the “Power the Polls” coalition, whose goal is to recruit “250,000 new workers” using the WorkElections.com portal.
Other efforts include those by the Massachusetts-based Voter Protection Corps, a new advocacy group, working with We The Action, a nonprofit that enlists lawyers in civic projects and has been recruiting poll workers for Texas’s July 14 primary runoff.
“Despite the challenges in recruiting poll workers presented by COVID, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the interest from Texas lawyers serving as poll workers,” said Paydon Miller, We The Action spokesman. “Dozens of lawyers have signed up to volunteer, and many others have indicated interest in helping in November.”
“I do want to emphasize the big takeaway from this effort: states need to be planning now,” he said. “Our experience is that lawyers stand prepared to help how they can, but if states and localities aren’t thinking this through now, we may face the same challenges we’ve seen during the primaries: long lines, unclear voting laws, and voters turned away.”
Staffing America’s polls is a monumental task akin to deploying a civilian army one small squad at a time. In 2016’s presidential election, nearly 110 million Americans voted in person at nearly 117,000 locations, according to the report, Voter Protection Corps, “Keep the Polls Open: An Action Plan to Protect In-Person Voting and Voting Rights in the Era of COVID-19.”
“More than 917,000 poll workers—sometimes known as election judges, booth workers, wardens, or commissioners—operated these sites. The EAC [U.S. Election Assistance Commission] has reported an average of between seven and eight poll workers per voting site consistently since 2012,” the report said. “Urban areas have fewer polling locations per capita and are at greater risk of long lines and overcrowding in the event of poll closures and consolidation.”
“If you think of the scope of the poll worker recruitment problem, it’s almost as big as the decennial [U.S.] Census,” said Quentin Palfrey, Voter Protection Corps chair. “In ordinary years, a lot of places have trouble recruiting poll workers. But during the pandemic, I think we are going to have massive shortfalls. And part of that is because more than 50 percent of poll workers, historically, have been over the age of 60. That population is going to be very reticent.”
According to Sancho, the states that ran the smoothest recent elections (including the historic shift to voting from home) saw roughly three-quarters of their electorate vote by mail and one-quarter vote in person. He cited Iowa and Kentucky as examples. Should that ratio hold for the fall’s general election, it means that hundreds of thousands of poll workers would be needed.
Historically, county-level officials—not political campaigns, political parties or activist groups—recruit poll workers, said Mike Firestone, co-author of the Corps’ report. Those officials can be a county election supervisor, appointed election official, judge, or municipal clerk who hires poll workers and is responsible for their training. Individuals must apply to be poll workers, which isn’t the same as being assigned by a political campaign or party to be a poll observer.
“There’s a hodgepodge of rules that we only lightly touch on in the report that create a ton of different restrictions and criteria for who can serve,” Firestone said. “In many, many cases, you need to be registered to vote in the jurisdiction where you’re going to serve. There’s a residency requirement plus an active voter status requirement. In some cases, you’ll need to add onto that a party affiliation to fill a particular spot. So outside organizations, particularly political campaigns, have left this function to local government and really focused their own efforts to having observers at the polls to make sure people aren’t getting disenfranchised or knocking on doors to get out the vote.”
Ryan Pierannunzi, Fair Elections Center’s project manager for WorkElections.com’s data and poll worker recruitment tool, said the portal seeks to help people sift through the application process. Individuals can find their state and county, view required local qualifications, access application forms (for students and non-students), and see their potential pay. The Work Elections portal also has contact information for local election officials.
“We’re trying to team up with everyone who’s interested,” he said. “We just launched Power the Polls on June 30. We have a plan to reach out to a lot of different groups. One member of Power the Polls is Civic Alliance, which is made up of leading companies across the country. The Time to Vote coalition is part of that as well; they’re committed to giving Election Day off for their employees… We have Comedy Central and MTV involved. Another big part of this is college students and young people. So we’re working with groups like Students Learn Students Vote and other nonprofits to get the word out.”
Some grassroots voting rights activists and organizers contacted by Voting Booth who have formidable field operations aimed at contacting voters in swing states and communities of color said they had heard some talk about potential poll worker campaigns, but not more than that.
“I have heard this as a strategy coming from several different corners. I haven’t really seen anybody who’s actually launched a detailed recruitment campaign other than occasional social media posts saying ‘let’s get more young people to apply’ or people posting a link on how people can get involved,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “A real recruitment campaign—I haven’t seen that. I know it’s in the works from different groups… It’s a potential strategy to deal with a key problem and also get younger people engaged in a different way.”
The Black Voters Matter Fund is focusing on eight states, including mostly Southern states—like Florida, Georgia and North Carolina—as well as Pennsylvania. One of its partners is a voter contact operation targeting Southern states including Texas run by Andrea Milker of People Demanding Action, which has been sending hundreds of thousands of texts and postcards weekly since early 2020. She, too, said that she had not heard about a serious recruitment campaign—but was fully supportive.
“We have got to have our people inside the polls. Not just outside. So this is great,” Miller said. “It would be interesting. How do we recruit poll workers? Where do they go? We are running phone banks and we are running text banks. We could easily work this in. What would we be asking people to do? How would we be telling them to go sign up?”
“There needs to be an activation process. Most people have no clue about this,” said Gabriela Lemus, treasurer of Mi Familia Vota, a Latino voting rights group. “They don’t even know what poll workers do. When they go vote, they think, ‘All these nice people. They must be volunteers.’ Which they are. But the fact is it is a very organized system.”
Sancho said he only heard about the Fair Elections Center’s poll worker campaign in early July. The WorkElections.com portal was a good start but didn’t go far enough, he said, based on years of experience recruiting registering voters and poll workers from Tallahassee’s Florida A&M University. During his tenure, those Black students helped turn Leon County’s judiciary from a mostly all-white bench to having half of the elected judges be people of color.
The Work Elections portal will send voters to their state and county election websites, where they can access online applications and other information. But it doesn’t collect follow-up information to assist people trying to apply to be a poll worker, Sancho said. It also doesn’t walk students through the steps to update their voter registration information, so that they can be a poll worker in their county where they are attending school or now living—which may not be the same as their county of residence when they initially registered to vote. (Many states, like Georgia, require poll workers to be residents and registered voters in the county they will serve.)
Black Voters Matter’s Albright agreed that specifics like these needed to be laid out.
“If you’re just telling people to be a poll worker, but you are not laying out what that process is, then it’s not going to happen. It’s really that simple,” he said. “You can tell people to be a poll worker. You can post a link that makes it easier for them to be a poll worker. You can post a link and give a somewhat detailed description of what this is really going to require of you.”
Despite the constructive criticism, Sancho said the effort was achievable, especially in urban counties with large non-white populations that have seen some of the biggest poll closures in pandemic primaries. Leading examples include Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which went from 182 to five polling places in its April primary. Or Philadelphia, which closed 77 percent of its polls—600 locations. Or Las Vegas, which had only three in-person sites.
“Most of the urban supervisors have the training modules to be poll workers on the internet,” Sancho said. “In Leon County, we do. If you’re a first-time worker, they like to bring you into a training room. But after that, everything can be done online. You can review daily your tasks. And again, the people who are most likely to be able to use the internet on a regular basis are this target audience [younger people]. It’s the older ones who have difficulty going on the internet to do the reviews.”
“Training can be accomplished in a way that it couldn’t have been 20 years ago if this pandemic had hit back then,” he said. “They didn’t have information on the internet. There was nowhere to go to remotely access it. It exists today.”
Sancho reiterated that Trump’s and the Republican Party’s game plan for November appears to be attacking vote by mail now, while not discussing or planning to accommodate in-person voting—to sow Election Day chaos that would be used as pretext to file suits so that federal courts, or even the Supreme Court, would end up deciding winners. The GOP’s operatives likely won’t be as explicit as Trump, but instead cite more mundane reasons to create those conditions.
“A lot of what is happening is the poll worker shortage is becoming part of the rationale for polling place closures, particularly in communities of color,” said Palfrey. “Even when it happens for reasons that are not nefarious, it has the effect of making it harder for folks to vote, and often the people it affects the most are historically disenfranchised groups.”
Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.