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Election Officials Seeking Poll Workers To Fill Coronavirus Shortage

Early, in-person voting is already underway at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. [Annie Wu / ideastream]
mural on the wall at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections

Updated: 6:48 p.m. Friday, March 13, 2020

Boards of elections across Ohio need to fill poll worker vacancies in advance of Tuesday’s primary election. And the coronavirus outbreak is making it harder than usual to fully staff for the upcoming vote.

During  a Thursday coronavirus press conference in Columbus, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said state workers are being encouraged to step up and fill vacancies because many of the usual poll workers are older and at risk of complications from coronavirus.

In Cuyahoga County, election officials have to fill about 4,000 positions for countywide elections like Tuesday’s. But poll workers have been backing out of their shifts in the past couple weeks because of coronavirus concerns, said board of elections spokesman Mike West.

“Shutting a location down because we don’t have enough poll workers isn’t an option," West said. "We will manage to have all of our polling locations open and ready for voters at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning.”

And there are other factors in the poll worker shortage that existed even before COVID-19 arrived in Northeast Ohio, Board of Elections Director Anthony Perlatti said Friday.

The St. Patrick’s Day holiday, even without parades in Cleveland or Akron, is contributing to the poll worker shortage, he said.

Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Director Anthony Perlatti addresses the poll worker shortage and concerns about coronavirus Friday. [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]

It’s a census year, so many of their usual employees are choosing to work there instead, Perlatti said, especially because census workers get paid more. And college students often work the polls, but with on-campus classes canceled, he said many students are no longer even in Northeast Ohio.

“So, the coronavirus is just one of many things that we’ve been faced with to find sufficient poll workers, so we’re doing the best we can with the situation presented to us," he said.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose  announced on Monday that voting sites in senior citizen facilities, which are now closed to visitors by the state, will be moved. In Cuyahoga County,  that meant 36 sites had to be closed.

The county is preparing a list of replacement polling places, West said, and plans to make it available soon.

According to West, the county is taking measures to ensure voters stay healthy, including making hand sanitizer available at all polling sites.

“And voters have access to that," West said. "And we wipe the whole place down, all surfaces, pens and things like that, at least four times a day. So that’s the kind of dedication people are going to see when they go to vote Tuesday.”

Such measures are already being used at the county's election offices in Cleveland, where early, in-person voting is available, West said.

The board of elections will  continue to train anyone who wants to volunteer at the polls or work on Primary Day.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.