Application process stymies 200+ would-be poll workers in Gwinnett

October 30, 2020 Duluth - Jalonna Kearney, with Gwinnett County Park & Recration, uses a disinfectant spray to clean as Gwinnett County voters cast their early voting ballots at the Shorty Howell Park Activity Building in Duluth on the last day of early voting on Friday, October 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

October 30, 2020 Duluth - Jalonna Kearney, with Gwinnett County Park & Recration, uses a disinfectant spray to clean as Gwinnett County voters cast their early voting ballots at the Shorty Howell Park Activity Building in Duluth on the last day of early voting on Friday, October 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Lynne Durham has the day off of work on Election Day. Her company has encouraged employees to use the time to go vote or help make voting easier for others. Durham voted early and saw this as an opportunity to become a poll worker in Gwinnett County.

She applied Oct. 4. She got a confirmation email from the county, saying they’d received her application. Weeks passed and she didn’t hear anything more.

Durham is not alone. Hundreds of potential workers, many of whom were spurred to apply after long lines in the June primary, have been left wondering why they never got a call to work the polls on Election Day. For many, it comes down to one form that they were unaware they had to complete in order to get to the next step.

Gwinnett County’s human resources department requires potential poll workers to submit an I-9 form before their application is moved over to the elections department. The I-9 is a form that allows the county to verify poll workers are U.S. citizens. Applicants are supposed to get an automated email after submitting their application with instructions on how to submit the tax form, country spokesman Joe Sorenson said. Nothing in the job posting or application indicates the I-9 is necessary to move forward.

Durham didn’t submit an I-9 because she wasn’t aware it was required. She never got the email that was supposed to tell her — she’s certain because she never deletes an email, and she said she checked her spam folder. It’s not clear what would have prevented her from receiving the message. She didn’t know the county needed the tax form until she reached out to the Gwinnett County Democratic Party.

“It makes me concerned with all the rhetoric we have now with the election, everything coming from the president making it sound like the election is going to be rigged,” said Durham, who identifies as an independent. “I see that people in the same situation as me might be scratching their head and saying ‘What’s going on? Are they trying to slow down the polls?’”

There are more than 200 people in Durham’s situation, said Bianca Keaton, chair of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party. Many contacted the organization wondering why they weren’t assigned to a polling place or at least given a response from the county elections department. Early this week, the party submitted a list of 208 people who said they’d applied and never heard back. About 40% did not have an I-9 form filed and 36% did not have an application on file, an elections official said in a reply to the party. About 23% had their application referred to the elections department for potential work.

Charles Conway did submit an I-9 about a month after he applied to be a poll worker. He didn’t get an email telling him to do so when he submitted his application in early September; it took four or five calls to the county human resources department to find out, he said. Once he submitted the form, it took a few more calls to HR to confirm his application had been sent to the elections office. When he didn’t hear from the elections office, he was given an email address — pollofficials@gwinnettcounty.com — that he could send further inquiries to.

“I emailed a couple of times and didn’t hear anything back,” Conway said. “I lost hope at that point.”

The elections department has gotten many inquiries from applicants who were never contacted to work on Election Day, Elections Director Kristi Royston said. All the cases she’s personally handled have involved missing I-9 forms, but she said she cannot speak to any she did not handle herself. Royston said she had not personally handled any cases in which an I-9 had been submitted and an applicant had not been contacted. The email address Conway was given is the correct one for submitting questions about being a poll workers, she said.

Up until the week of Oct. 19, it was the duty of the county’s 156 poll managers — one for each precinct — to contact and hire eligible applicants. The county took over that job because they were not yet at their goal number of confirmed poll workers and wanted to speed up the process, Royston said. As of Oct. 28, the county was at its maximum goal of 1,973, but will continue recruiting through Election Day to make up for any last-minute dropouts, Royston said.

Many people cited long lines in June’s primary — some voters waited more than two hours — as their reason for applying to be a poll worker. The county had to recruit a large number of new people to staff the polls, as many veteran poll workers over the age of 65 opted out due to COVID-19. Training for all except poll managers occurred online, making the day of the primary the first time many workers physically interacted with the voting machines, new models Georgia began using in early 2020.

Royston pledged to fix the issues faced in June before the general election. More poll workers have been able to get in-person training. The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office and outside groups, including the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, have referred hundreds of potential poll workers to the county.

Conway hasn’t ruled out applying again in the future, but his experience this year left him exasperated.

“It’s frustrating. I was trying to help,” Conway said. “It sounded like they needed poll workers, and I was trying to fill a need and do a community service.”

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