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Ohio Is Still Looking For A Few Good Poll Workers

[M.L. Schultze / WKSU]

Ohio has recruited more than 50,000 poll workers for the Nov. 3 election and is hunting for another 5,000. But staffing for any Election Day is kind of like building a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. And the pandemic has scrambled the pieces across the state. All this for an election likely to be unlike any other.

Doretha Street worked the polls in Canton once before, a few years back. But she hesitated when she thought about returning this year. Her age, which she described as “senior citizen,” puts her at risk for contracting COVID-19. Should she remain in a closed area for more than 13 hours assisting hundreds of strangers?

She was reassured by the precautions outlined by the Stark County Board of Elections: mask mandates, plexiglass barriers, sanitizing, personal protective equipment. But what tipped her decision was the search for a different kind of reassurance: trust in American democracy.

“Our country is going through so much drama," Street said. "And instead of complaining about it, we need to try to learn what’s going on as far as the voting system.”

So, she spent three hours learning how to set up and knock down electronic voting machines and learning how to compare signatures on the E-poll books, change printer rolls, even how to calmly explain options to voters who won’t wear masks.

Doretha Street and a recruit are to work the polls in this year's general election. [M.L. Schultze / WKSU]

New Recruits

Street’s a bit of an anomaly. When the pandemic struck last spring, concerns about exposure cost Ohio’s boards of elections many of their core workers: seniors. It set off a mad scramble for replacements until, literally at the eleventh hour, Ohio called off in-person voting.

Since then, Secretary of State Frank LaRose has launched recruiting initiatives to sign up and train a record number of workers.

“To make sure that we abide by the right health standards to make sure that every eligible voter has an opportunity to make their voice heard…”

Ohio signed up a range of volunteers: lawyers, accountants, realtors, veterans, companies giving employees a paid day for working the polls and 17-year-old high school juniors.

Aaron Ockerman, director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said the blending of the new with the old has its advantages.

“They love the younger kids. We hear that consistently from the poll workers because they’re young. They understand technology. They’re not intimidated by it, and you know, there’s a lot of technology in voting these days, so that’s a real positive," Ockerman said. "And, candidly, they can lift heavy stuff and that makes a lot of our older pollworkers happy as well.”

A Lot To Learn

But it also requires a lot of training amid massive changes and an election drawing extraordinarily intense interest. That training includes how to leave passionate political views outside the ultimate political place: the polling booth.

Outside groups recruiting poll workers this year range from Cleveland Right to Life’s call for “Pro Life Warriors” to Planned Parenthood.

But they all take the same oath to support a fair election. And Mollie Landefeld of the Monroe County Board of Elections says even in small counties like hers, where many opinions are known, and in times like these, where many are vehemently shared, the training includes practical and legal reasons for poll worker neutrality.

“We don’t want to add fuel to the fire in any way, shape or form, and as long as we keep our cool, hopefully the tensions won’t be as high,” Landefeld said.

A page from the pollworkers training book for 2020. [M.L. Schultze / WKSU]

More Than Numbers

Recruiting poll workers is more than a numbers game. Ohio law requires that members of a single party make up no more than half the workers at each precinct. So, for example, Democratic-leaning Cuyahoga County is shopping for 1,000 more Republicans and Independents, while small Republican-leaning counties like Monroe need a couple dozen Democrats and Independents.

Then, for every function at every precinct, people of differing parties are paired, from curbside voting to delivering precinct results at the end of the day.

All of which LeeAnn Slicker found reassuring after she signed up for the first time to be a poll worker in Stark County. Slicker works full time and the two youngest of her five children are still living at home, so she hasn’t had the time nor, until recently, a special inclination to be active politically. But, she said, this election is different.

“It’s a scary time for all of us," Slicker said. "I have three older daughters and two younger children that I’m concerned about, where things are heading for them. And I feel like I have to do something, some little bit to help out.”

With more than eight million Ohioans registered to vote and as many as half expected to wait for Election Day to cast their ballots, Ohio’s still looking for a little bit more of that help.

Copyright 2020 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.