Loss of poll workers threatens in-person voting in Georgia primary

Poll workers are quitting and precincts are closing across Georgia because of the coronavirus pandemic, dimming the outlook for in-person voting in the state’s primary election.

The primary is still scheduled for May 19, but the situation is deteriorating, say several county election managers contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

If the election moves ahead as planned, Georgia voters could be faced with long lines and limited options, similar to the situation that unfolded Tuesday in Wisconsin's primary.

“We’re going to have challenges that we’ve never faced before,” said Richard Barron, the elections director for Fulton County. “If people decide they’re going to go to the polling place and we’re putting the minimum number of poll workers out there, it’s going to be difficult for voters.”

Election officials are encouraging voting by mail, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger sent absentee ballot request forms to the state's 6.9 million active voters.

But in-person voting — during three weeks of early voting and on election day — is also required by state law.

That will present a health and safety dilemma for poll workers, who on average are over 70 years old and more at-risk of falling ill to the coronavirus. In addition, voters would have to keep 6 feet apart from each other, and fewer than 10 people would be allowed in a room at once.

In Fulton, fewer than 500 people have committed to working the election, Barron said. Normally, the state’s most populous county has more than 1,600 poll workers at 199 polling places.

Raffensperger said he's hearing concerns from county election officials, but he said he lacks the power under Georgia law to postpone the primary unless Gov. Brian Kemp declares another public health emergency that includes the election period. Kemp's current state of emergency expires Monday, and early voting is set to begin April 27.

A decision on whether to change the primary date may be growing near.

“Looking at the situation on the ground, then we’ll be able to make a determination at that time” if Kemp extends the public health emergency, Raffensperger said Monday. “We’re very mindful of what is happening throughout Georgia right now and the ability to have in-person voting.”

Deidre Holden, the elections supervisor for Paulding County west of Atlanta, said she has lost about one-third of her 325 poll workers.

“We’re in the planning of the war stage right now,” Holden said. “We’re so in need for people to fill these spots. We’ll pretty much pay anybody who’s willing to be a poll worker.”

Poll workers are often paid a flat rate for election day that varies in each county, with pay generally starting at $120 for more than 12 hours of work. Senior poll workers make more money.

Election managers say they'll try to recruit new hires in the coming weeks, possibly from people who have been laid off. The state processed nearly 134,000 applications for unemployment insurance last week, more than 10 times the average.

But hiring poll workers will likely be difficult, election officials said. Many are unwilling to risk exposure to the coronavirus.

In Cobb County, few poll workers have quit so far, but that could quickly change, Elections Director Janine Eveler said.

“Most people are saying they are willing to work, but they need to know what it looks like closer to the election. Everything can change day to day,” Eveler said. “As the coronavirus progresses in April and if we don’t see that curve start to flatten, I am sure many of the at-risk poll workers will end up dropping as we get closer to the election.”

Besides the loss of poll workers, churches and assisted living centers that usually serve as voting locations have shut their doors. Voters who usually cast their ballot at those precincts will be reassigned.

In Fulton, five assisted living centers and two churches are unwilling to serve as precincts. The county will also likely reduce its planned 21 early-voting sites.

DeKalb County election officials said they hope to keep their 11 early-voting locations, and the county is asking whether those locations are still available to host in-person early voting.

Each voting location is required to have at least three poll workers. With nearly 2,700 precincts in Georgia, that’s about 8,000 poll workers needed.

In Lowndes County, Elections Supervisory Deb Cox said she’s lost about 40% of her poll workers but still has enough to staff the county’s 11 precincts.

She has about 90 poll workers willing to work. Still, some of those precincts might be unavailable for the May election.

“Our commission chair just walked in and I asked if he wanted a job. He politely declined,” Cox said. “At this point, I’m not overly concerned. It’s something to consider.”

Some areas haven’t lost poll workers yet, including places like Chatham, Macon and Muscogee counties. Their elections directors said they haven’t been hit as hard by the coronavirus.

“It would be nice if everything is business as usual. We’d be fools to say it is,” said Russell Bridges, the elections supervisor for Chatham County, where just three of 700 poll workers have expressed concerns. “You plan the best you can for what you know you’ve got to do and hope for the best when you get there.”