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Iowa Election Officials Worry About Staffing Shortages

Since the launch of the Secretary of State’s poll worker website, more than 17,000 Iowans have expressed interest in being a poll worker. But some officials worry mounting pressures may lead potential workers to drop out.

(TNS) — Despite challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic and a rise in conspiracy theory-fueled threats to election workers nationwide, Iowa election officials say they've had success recruiting poll workers to staff the upcoming Nov. 8 general election.

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller said his office plans to have 398 precinct election officials, as well as about 120 backups, working 70 polling locations hosting 94 precincts on Election Day.

"So we're in great shape," Miller said, but cautioned "things could change in the next eight weeks if people feel threatened."

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said his office has taken an active role in recruiting poll workers across the state. In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary of State's Office launched to assist counties with supplementing their ranks and finding new people to assist voters on Election Day.

Since the website launched, more than 17,000 Iowans have expressed interest in serving as a poll worker, according to the Iowa Secretary of State's Office.

"We need around 10,000 poll workers for every general election," Pate responded to The Gazette in an email. "We have a good base, but constantly need to build upon it. My office has done multiple statewide pushes on social media to recruit new precinct election officials, and we've helped at least 10 counties in the past few weeks with a targeted social media effort to find local poll workers for this November. We've let every county auditor know we're here to help them identify more people who can lend a hand."

Pate said his office has reached out to the Iowa Bar Association, as well as other groups, to tap into its professional networks to promote poll working among its lawyers and law students for the Nov. 8 election as it did in the 2020 elections.

"Ideally, we'd like to have extra poll workers signed up in every county," Pate said. "That way, if something happens on or before Election Day and someone drops out, we have backups in place."

Poll workers check-in voters, make sure they have the correct ballot, answer questions, process votes and help ensure "smooth, clean elections in every precinct in Iowa," Pate said.

Difficulty Finding Bipartisan Balance

Some Iowa counties are having difficulty recruiting a bipartisan mix of poll workers to work at voting sites.

By law, the precinct election official team must have a bipartisan balance, "and that makes it a little more difficult for some counties when their registration leans heavily toward one particular party," Pate said.

Republican Sioux County Auditor Ryan Dokter, past president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, said his office has had difficulties recruiting registered Democrats to work the polls in the heavily conservative county.

"I think overall we're going to have enough people" to work at polling sites, Dokter said, adding "more of our challenge is going to be obtaining that party balance."

"That's something that we've historically had a challenge with, and we work with the local Democratic Party on recruiting folks that are registered Democrats to help us out," he said.

For the 2020 election, the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for counties across the country to retain longtime poll workers who dropped out of the ranks because they needed to quarantine or faced higher COVID-19 risks related to their age, and caused last-minute poll worker shortages, according to a report by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

"Some of those folks we'll probably never see come back and work again, just because they're no longer comfortable in big-group settings like that," Dokter said.

But efforts of state and county election official and other organizations to encourage individuals to serve as poll workers has helped contribute to an oversupply of poll workers in some areas.

"We've been pretty fortunate to find some new folks that haven't helped before and have really stepped up and helped us out," Dokter said.

County officials also increased pay in January — from $11 an hour to $12 an hour for regular poll workers and $15 an hour for a precinct chair — to entice volunteers to work the polls for the 2022 elections.

"You do get paid and are part of a very important process to make sure that we're doing everything we can to protect the vote," Dokter said.

Fears of Harassment, Intimidation and Violence

Miller, though, said he worries the current political climate will grow more caustic closer to the election and spark increased intimidation, threats and violence surrounding the electoral process that could cause poll workers to drop out between now and then.

He created a website where he has posted a collection of public records requests, demands and propaganda received by the Linn County Auditor's Office he said could affect public acceptance of future election results.

Miller also pointed to a recent spike in challenges to recent Iowa voters' registrations that may have been inspired by a 2020 election results denier who spoke in Iowa recently, and noted changes to Iowa's elections laws passed in 2021 that grant added protections to poll watchers.

A lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa alleges the new law unconstitutionally protects poll observers from removal by election officials.

It is now a misdemeanor for an election official to interfere with poll watchers and other partisan challengers, "even if those individuals attempt to disrupt or otherwise impede the electoral process," the lawsuit alleges.

Supporters of the provision falsely claim the 2020 election was replete with anecdotes of partisan election officials excluding poll observers from monitoring and watching the electoral process in various parts of the county, and that legislation was needed to protect poll observers from undue interference. Such allegations have been widely disputed by state and county election officials in various states, with no evidence found to substantiate the allegations.

"We've had aggressive poll watchers in the past. I anticipate they'll be back for this election, and I'm anticipating problems with that," Miller said.

He said he local law enforcement will patrol polling places on Election Day "to ensure that there are no distractions occurring between precinct election officials, poll watchers and voters."

Miller said he also plans to meet with representatives of the Linn County Attorney's Office and Linn County Sheriff's Office ahead of the Nov. 8 election to discuss strategies and protocol for how to respond "should we have any election misconduct charges" and "what will occur if in fact someone does cause problems, disturbances within the polling place."

He also cited recent changes to state elections laws that, among other things, cut the state's early voting period and window for requesting and returning an absentee ballot, which resulted in hundreds of Linn County voters missing the deadline to vote absentee in the city/school and June primary elections.

"So all these things are going to combine to result in more people showing up on Election Day to vote," he said. "You're going to have more poll watchers there. You have the potential for conflict. ... We have this aggressiveness going on that has the potential to cause disruptions.

Miller, a Democrat running to challenge Pate in the 2022 campaign to be Iowa's statewide elections official, criticized the Republican incumbent for not disavowing former President Donald Trump and his allies for spreading false and widely debunked claims that the 2020 presidential election results were fraudulent, which has fueled misinformation eroding public confidence in the electoral process.

Pate said his office has been producing statements and other information that pushes back on lies and distorted facts about elections in Iowa.

Asked during an appearance Friday on this weekend's episode of " Iowa Press" on Iowa PBS if he was concerned about the harassment of poll workers, Pate said his office has been working closely with county auditors across the state on plans for how to respond.

"We should always be concerned about the protection of our poll workers and the people coming to vote," Pate said. "Whether it be a tornado, whether it be a fire, whether it be civil unrest, we need to be prepared for that. And I think the county auditors do a good job on that front."

Pate, in a statement provided to The Gazette, said "election workers are heroes."

"They're your friends and neighbors," he said. "They're people who go to the same churches and parks and grocery stores as you — people whose kids and grandkids play with your kids and grandkids. They take their responsibility seriously and are on the front line of protecting our elections.

"Let's have some faith in them."

(c)2022 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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