Elected officials around the country are worried that a shortage of poll workers could hamper voting this fall and delay election results in key states. But Colorado clerks are grappling with a different — and much more welcome — situation: a poll worker surge.
It was news stories about states scrambling to recruit and keep older poll workers in the middle of a pandemic that convinced Andre Miller of Denver to sign up as a poll worker, also known as an election judge. The 27-year-old is working from home and said he wants to do his part.
“I'm at lower risk of developing COVID complications and I expect that I’ll have extra time this fall and I thought it would be that I could be helpful this election at the polls,” he said.
Denver pays anywhere from $13 to $17 an hour — and officials try to balance its judges equally between registered Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated or other third party voters. They’re deployed in bipartisan teams to check signatures on ballots, receive and pick up ballots from drop boxes and run vote centers. Because Denver is heavily Democratic, it sometimes draws on Republican judges from neighboring regions to maintain that political balance.
“I've worked [in] elections since 2000. I've never seen an interest this high, this early for an election, especially a presidential,” said Elizabeth Littlepage, election judge coordinator for Denver. She said the city has heard from a lot more people interested than it has spaces available.
As of August 31, more than 3500 people had applied to work the polls in Denver. At the same time four years ago, it was 76. Littlepage said in 2016 Denver ended up having to hire 40 temporary workers at the last minute to meet its needs. Part of the problem is that being an election judge isn’t an easy commitment for people with a full-time job.
“It's not just one day here in Colorado. We expect people to work a minimum of two days. We have jobs that have already started,” she said.
Littlepage says they saw a huge increase in applications after the Daily Show host, Trevor Noah made a pitch to his younger audience to volunteer.
“Fewer poll workers means fewer polling stations are going to be open. And it means longer lines that not everybody can afford to stay and wait , especially people of color in working class areas,” said Noah in a video segment that’s been viewed 2.7 million times.
And it’s not just happening in Denver; the Colorado County Clerks Association says there’s an uptick across the state, even in small rural counties.
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“The counties have had exuberant interest in serving in November and are not as concerned about recruitment as earlier in the year,” said Pam Anderson, the head of the Colorado County Clerks Association. “There may be some politically homogeneous counties that may need affiliated judges of one party or another if the major parties send insufficient lists.”
Political parties provide lists of interested judges for counties to select from first. Another factor that works in Colorado’s favor is mail voting; because most people fill out the ballot they’re sent, instead of voting in person, fewer poll workers are needed.
It’s a very different situation nationally.
“We're seeing a lot of need, particularly from large metropolises, large cities, like Philadelphia. [They] typically need about 8,500 poll workers in Philly and they have about 2,500. So there are really acute needs,” said Avi Stopper, a co-founder of the national group the Poll Hero Project which recruits high school and college age students to help with elections. Stopper said his group has already recruited 15,000 people, far above their original goal. He said scenes like what happened in places like Milwaukee during the primary election are still fresh in many people’s minds.
“As a case in point, 175 of 180 polling locations were closed on primary day. And one of the key drivers for that, one of the main reasons behind it was that they didn't have enough poll workers,” Stopper said.
Seventeen-year-old Denver South High School student Georgia Cargile signed up to work the election after she saw her friends posting about the Poll Hero Project on Instagram. She said she was motivated by the pandemic and the desire to keep older people safe.
“My grandpa, who's 78 or something, he lives in Alabama and he had COVID and was in the hospital for over 50 days. And my basketball coach also had coronavirus and was on a ventilator for over 40 days,” she said.
Cargile said even though she can’t vote yet, this election is incredibly important to her, and it’s worth her time to help make it go smoothly.
“It's going to be a really long day on November 3rd, but I would rather be the one out there. And I would rather me be exposed than an older person who could have a lot more issues if they were to get coronavirus.”
Colorado’s county clerks say they appreciate so much enthusiasm, but they warn that not everyone who applies to help this election will get slots.