Bay Area's 'Faithful' Election Poll Workers Sidelined by Pandemic

A poll worker helps a voter drop off their ballot at San Francisco City Hall during Super Tuesday on Mar. 3, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For two decades, Dean Lopez has quietly helped democracy function in Contra Costa County. Lopez, a retired senior who lives in Concord, has served as a poll worker and supervising poll inspector. Every election, he oversees a polling place, answers questions from voters and collects ballots at the end of the day.

"It's a satisfaction that I'm doing something for the civic good, I'm giving back to the community," Lopez said. "And I'm a people person, so I'm not afraid to interact with people or help them resolve different problems." 

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But this year, Lopez will be at home for the election. The person-to-person contact that he enjoyed at the polls is now a potential threat to his health. The risk of contracting COVID-19 is leading many seniors to follow suit, shrinking the most reliable pool of election day poll workers.

"I just felt, as I looked at (Election Day) and thought about it for several weeks, that I just didn't see how I could keep myself safe," Lopez, 67, said. He assessed his risk of COVID-19 this way: "If I get it, I'm probably not going to make it." 

California is urging voters to cast their ballots by mail this fall, but a shortage of poll workers could threaten counties' ability to conduct a safe and successful election for those who want or need to vote in-person.

In order to avoid a poll worker shortage that could result in long delays on election day, state and local officials are sounding the alarm in hopes of recruiting a new cavalry of poll workers.

"We're always worried, but I'm specifically worried this election," said Mayank Patel, Division Manager for Poll Worker and Field Support at the San Francisco Department of Elections. 

"So far we've noticed an increase in the number of folks who basically say they're not able to serve anymore," Patel said. "A common reason is due to COVID or they fall into the high risk category." 

In response to a July survey of county election offices, Alameda, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Solano counties told the Secretary of State's office that they need help finding poll workers. Marin and Sonoma said they "maybe" would require assistance, while Contra Costa declined the offer.

Scott Konopasek, Contra Costa County's Assistant Registrar of Voters, said recruitment typically picks up in September and October, but that many long-time poll workers have opted out over the summer.

"Commitments are bleeding off a little bit and fewer people are saying that they're interested in working," Konopasek said. "Candidly, it's kind of an ethical dilemma for us to ask our faithful senior volunteer poll workers to work at in-person voting locations on Election Day." 

James Gillivan, of Walnut Creek, was one of the longtime poll workers who decided against participating "because of the COVID, specifically."

"I'm 80-years-old and I'm immune impaired," Gillivan said, whose medication for rheumatoid arthritis affects his immune system. "I just said this isn't worth it to me to take the risk. Otherwise, I'd do it in a heartbeat."

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A shortage of poll workers can have disastrous impacts on in-person voting, and many states have eliminated polling places during the pandemic because of poll worker absentees, said Raúl Macías, legal counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.

"The number of poll workers does seem to directly impact wait times with voters," Macías said. 

Long wait times could result in lines that reduce voters' ability to safely distance — or discourage them from voting altogether.

"Lines can pose both the risk of disenfranchisement and a risk to people's health this election cycle," he added. 

California election officials are hoping to avoid crisis by sending every voter a ballot in the mail, which can be cast at home or dropped off at a drop-box or voting site.

But Black and Latino voters, along with voters seeking language or disability access assistance, are more likely to vote in-person, Macías said, and stand to bear the brunt of polling place consolidations.

"It's really important for our democracy to keep in-person voting available," Macías added. 

In a report released last week on Guidelines for Healthy In-Person Voting, the Brennan Center recommends that election administrators "increase efforts to recruit poll workers and recruit a surplus of poll workers for elections, especially from segments of the population who are not at high risk from Covid-19."

That's the task before California election officials, who hope to use the next two months to recruit a new wave of election workers.

They'll need the help of young volunteers like Rohan Chakrabarti, a high school junior in San Ramon, who served as a poll worker for the first time in March.

Chakrabarti, who is still too young to vote himself, said he signed up to experience the voting process and feed his interest in politics. Now, he's hoping to recruit friends to join him in November.

"Due to the coronavirus, it would be important for younger people to do the poll working rather than older people who are more likely to get the virus," Chakrabarti said.

Counties will also have to step up their efforts to recruit bilingual poll workers, like Chakrabarti, who speaks Bengali.

State law already requires a "good faith effort" to recruit bilingual poll workers in any precinct in which more than three percent of voters belong to a single language minority.

As a result of a 2019 court ruling, county officials are required to provide services for speakers of 14 additional languages, including Bengali, Burmese and Japanese. In San Francisco and San Mateo, officials are specifically asking for help in finding poll workers to translate for the latter two languages.

In a statement announcing the launch of a statewide portal to recruit poll workers last week, Secretary of State Alex Padilla made an explicit pitch for multilingual volunteers.

“If you speak more than one language, your assistance is particularly needed," he said. "You can help provide language access and assistance to voters so everyone can participate."

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