Poll workers are often senior citizens. Will Connecticut volunteers be sitting out this presidential election for their own safety?

Sarah Ricker

10/28/2020

“I feel as though I’m doing everything I can to stay safe,” said Joan Kepler.

Kepler, North Stonington’s Registrar of Voters for the Democratic Party, is 75 years old has held the elected position of the registrar since 2014. She has been volunteering at the polls since 1997.  “I enjoy working, but I’m afraid because of the airborne germs. But we have to try to accommodate the people who are helping us,” she said in a phone call.

Plexiglass dividers, face shields, face masks, gloves, and wipes for doors and voting booths are all part of North Stonington’s initiative to keep their poll workers safe. The town has 4,200 voters, and one single voting location.  

This year, there is a national shortage of poll workers. Due to most people requesting mail-in ballots to vote from home and the typical poll worker being over the age of 61, there is a critical polling staff who are able and prepared to assist with in-person voting amid the pandemic health risks.

The Election Administration and Voting Comprehensive Report of 2018 reports that “less than one-fifth of poll workers were younger than 41 years old, whereas more than two-thirds were 61 years or older.”  Additionally, more than two-thirds of states reported it was “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to fill their poll worker position. Only 15.3 percent of jurisdictions noted having a “somewhat easy” or “very easy” experience while recruiting.

Kepler usually hires 12 people to work the polls, nine of which are always senior citizens. This year, she’s hiring 14 and only five are seniors. The people who are filling the seniors’ positions are all in their 20-40’s she said. “We were concerned we wouldn’t fill the spaces in the months leading up,” she said.

Contrary to national averages, Tim DeCarlos, the Republican Registrar of Voters in Waterbury, Connecticut, said he had no trouble recruiting polling staff this presidential election. “I would say it’s been easier this year to find people. There’s been so much public awareness of the fact that people are needed… and it’s the older population seems more determined to be here,” he said in a phone call.

In Waterbury, Connecticut, a city of 51,000 voters, about 300 poll workers are hired into paid positions for presidential elections. DeCarlos said about a third of their usual recruitment decided not to apply this year, a number he said is consistent with past polling staff recruitment.

According to the Center for Disease Control, people who are ages 60 to 80 are at the highest risk for infection and account for 80 percent of all virus-related deaths in the United States, simply due to their age and their frequency of underlying medical conditions.

Bar chart showing that the majority of U.S. poll workers are over 60
SOURCE: Pew Research Center

Kepler, who works in the election office every day getting voters registered, has asthma, is diabetic and has had two heart attacks. “I don’t blame them,” she said referring to last year’s seniors who decided not to return as poll workers this season.

According to a Pew Research Survey conducted in mid-March, about two-thirds (66%) of U.S. adults say they “wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a polling place to vote.” For North Stonington’s 4,200 voters, Kepler said about 1,000 absentee ballots went out in the mail and so far, they are have received 743 back correctly.

“There is an awful lot of confusion,” Kepler said. In North Stonington’s primary election, some ballots were returned without a signature or signed incorrectly; others weren’t mailed in the correct envelopes. Kepler said she believes some senior citizens are “old school” in this election and are deciding to vote in-person despite the risk.

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