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A New Role for Public Employees: Staffing the Polls

Jurisdictions across the country are facing a shortage of poll workers for the November election. Local government workers should be deployed to augment the volunteers who do show up.

The most substantial risk to the integrity of this November's election isn't related to allegations that Democrats or Republicans are conspiring to subvert the voting for partisan ends. Rather, it deals with the operational infrastructure and urgently required changes needed to conduct an election that will be viewed by the public as fair in outcome to the candidates and fair in experience to the voters.

It's clear that the combination of COVID-19 and the particularly intense interest in the outcome of this year's vote will pressure-test an election-day system insufficiently structured to respond. Elections are mostly conducted at the county level, and we need to professionalize the process, at least in part. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Executive Armond Budish took a big step in the right direction recently in allowing county employees to receive paid leave while serving as poll workers in the November election. Why not take the next step across the country and make this year's election-day work part of the professional responsibilities of local government, redeploying public workers to the polls?

Today most poll workers are volunteers who in some places receive small stipends. Many of these volunteers are older and therefore more vulnerable to the coronavirus, so it's understandable why so many are canceling plans to work at the polls, leading to anticipated and in some cases severe shortages nationwide. Volunteers who do show up will be asked, in addition to their standard tasks of checking registrations, handing out ballots and helping to tabulate the results, to also undertake the hugely more difficult and contentious process of examining an expected deluge of mail-in ballots for compliance and then counting those votes.

The Washington Post reports that as of Aug. 14, a historic high of more than 180 million Americans — 77 percent of the electorate — were eligible to cast absentee ballots or otherwise vote by mail. We have already witnessed the effect of the challenges of greatly expanded mail-in voting. In New York City, for example, a tenfold increase in mailed ballots for two June congressional primaries delayed the final results for six weeks.

And yet concentrating on the mail-in deluge understates the problem. In Indianapolis, bipartisan efforts to expand mail-in voting for the June primary caused officials to underestimate the number of voters who still preferred to cast their ballots in person, resulting in long lines and some voters abandoning their franchise rights. Meanwhile, some voters, concerned about mail delivery, brought their absentee ballots to their precincts on election day, as allowed by law, but were frustrated by poor signage as to where to safely and quickly deposit them. In the Milwaukee primary, the shortage of poll workers caused the county to consolidate polling sites, producing alarming pictures of tightly packed individuals awaiting their right to vote. New Jersey and Wisconsin deployed National Guard members to serve as poll workers in their states' primaries.

County executives, and mayors where city-run elections are the norm, can address these problems and go a long way toward guaranteeing a smoother election by making the operation of polling places a responsibility of public employees augmenting the volunteers who do show up. This assignment will involve sacrifices by public employees who, like the volunteers, will need to be safeguarded with the right personal protective equipment as well as clear plastic safeguards and polling-place markings for social distancing. It's also important that partially professionalizing the voting process not diminish the rights of the political parties to have their own representatives on hand at the polls observing operations for the purpose of checks and balances.

Whether in the precincts or in the central election office, we need to totally reimagine voting operations — establishing who is responsible for training and safety, determining the right number of staff needed, and holding emergency-management-type drills in advance. Local officials also should assign their public health directors to assist in making polling places as safe from contagion as possible and begin in advance to work through scenarios and establish guidelines for situations where there may be a disagreement on whether a ballot should count.

Finally, local elected officials should develop a communication plan to help voters understand dates, options and consequences. A single outbound letter is insufficient. Governments should employ all methods of communication and not rely only on traditional media channels.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of individuals volunteer to support our democracy every election day. This year in particular we owe them support. Let's define the operational excellence of the election as part of the duties of local public employees. Few other public services match the importance of elections that produce confidence.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

A professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program. He can be reached at
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