Poll workers are essential employees. We need to treat them that way | Mark O’Keefe

DORAL, FLORIDA - AUGUST 18: Poll workers at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department deposit peoples' mail in ballots into an official ballot drop box on primary election day on August 18, 2020 in Doral, Florida. Voters casts ballots in Miami-Dade to elect Miami-Dade’s mayor, School Board seats, Miami-Dade state attorney and Judges. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Being a poll worker is a thankless job.

They do the grunt work of elections, making sure voters are registered and correctly identified. Guiding voters to the voting machines and answering any questions they might have, poll workers, toil long hours for a mere pittance.

This November, voters might find out just important those positions are as a vast number of vacancies might make it impossible to fill all of them.

In Pennsylvania, poll workers consist of a judge of elections, a majority inspector, and a minority inspector. They are elected positions. In some counties, election boards add volunteers to make sure things run smoothly.

However, in many precincts, no one runs, so the posts are filled by appointments from the county court or the county commissioners.

But the problem is that many of the poll workers are older people who risk catching the coronavirus by coming into contact with so many people on election day. To avoid any problems, they’re resigning in droves.

The result could be the consolidation of polls and longer lines at the voting booths, making it harder for people to vote. Chaos and uncertainty could happen.

The Voter Protection Corps and Carnegie Mellon University studied the problem and found that 15 counties in Pennsylvania face a critical shortage of poll workers. They include Fayette, Washington, Westmoreland, Adams, York, Dauphin, Lancaster, Berks, Chester and Montgomery, Lehigh, Bucks, Northampton, Monroe and Luzerne counties.

Researchers looked at a combination of census and election data from 2016-18 to study election needs. They created a tool and ranked the level of need counties facing poll workers in eight states: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin.

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“We developed this tool to prioritize voter protection efforts through a data-driven approach,” said Rayid Ghani, a CMU professor, and Voter Protection Corps’ chief data scientist. “It identifies supply and demand gaps in voting resources and highlights concrete that leaders should take, such as recruiting poll workers’ immediately.”

Bob LaRocca, president of the Voter Protection Corps, said the spring primary illustrated the importance of maintaining and staffing local polls.

“Even if you have vote by mail, there will still be some large groups — African Americans and young people — who will vote in person,” LaRocca said. “We still have to keep polls open or it will lead to voter suppression.”

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LaRocca said his group recommends that states loosen residency requirements for poll workers so officials can tap lawyers and students who might be willing to volunteer for the positions but can’t due to municipal boundaries.

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However, thanks to the Pennsylvania Legislature, such changes may not come soon enough for the presidential election.

The county board of elections can appoint replacement poll workers if vacancies arise. Under current law, however, they must wait until five days until the election to select them. Before those five days, candidates have to get approval from the county court.

The logjam such a process creates, especially with the upcoming presidential election, will cause even more confusion.

The Pennsylvania Department of State studied the June 2 primary election. It made many recommendations, including allowing counties to fill election board vacancies 60 days before an election, well before Sept. 15, when legislators reconvene in Harrisburg.

The department said the extra time would provide counties with greater flexibility in ensuring that “polling places are properly staffed on election day. to make sure all votes are counted.”

The report also recommended sending out ballots 35 days before an election instead of 14 days as it is now and counting votes three weeks before the election instead of on election day.

Lawmakers could return from their two-month recess sooner than Sept. 15 to start dealing with these election problems. However, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, recently told the Pennsylvania Cable Network that he wasn’t optimistic that would happen.

“If there is an agreement between all the different entities, whether it’s administration — because the administration has also weighed in on some things that they would like — and the Senate, if that can come to fruition, I would try to bring people back in late August,” Benninghoff said.

Democrats from both chambers say there’s no consensus, and Pennsylvania Senate Republicans confirm that negotiations haven’t begun. Discussions are ongoing, but they have been mainly out of the public eye through phone calls and emails.

As we all know, changing the state’s voting laws won’t be an easy process for legislators. Some Republicans will disagree with the recommendations from the Department of State. It also could take a week or two, maybe even longer, for a consensus to emerge.

Keep in mind that things are bound to heat up on both sides of the aisle as the election nears. And remember this is the bitterly partisan Pennsylvania Legislature. There may be no compromises, and nothing will get done. That certainly wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened in Harrisburg.

The Legislature should have solved these election challenges before going on their two-month recess in the middle of July. They could correct that by returning to Harrisburg as soon as possible and make the necessary changes for a safe and orderly election.

It’s way past time for lawmakers to stand up and allow reason and common sense to rule the day. It might be a long shot, but right now, it’s the only shot we have.

Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.