Opinion: How city workers will help on Election Day

Government employees in a number of cities can take paid leave to serve as poll workers on Election Day – a move that officials say could be a critical strategy to help ease a nationwide shortage of election volunteers prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

During the 2016 election, nearly 65% of jurisdictions reported it was difficult to recruit sufficient numbers of election workers; by 2018, that proportion had increased to 70%, according to data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

This year is likely to be worse. Poll workers resigned en masse months ahead of the election, citing health concerns due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Older volunteers – who comprise nearly 60% of all poll workers – were especially likely to forego their duties this fall, given their increased risk of becoming seriously ill and developing complications from the virus.

Some city officials hope to address the problem by making it easier for employees to volunteer at the polls. Policies vary from place to place, but the basic premise is the same: allow local government workers to help with the election without forcing them to use vacation time.

In Columbia, Missouri, for example, the city council unanimously approved a proposal allowing city employees to receive a maximum of eight hours of paid leave to volunteer as poll workers on Election Day, provided they do not “engage in any political activity.”

In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms went further, issuing an executive order that grants eight hours of leave for employees to work the polls for November’s general election, with an additional eight hours to work a run-off election in January.

In both instances, the hours can be used either on the day of the election or during early voting.

Bottoms said the move was necessary to avoid a repeat of the June primary election, which was delayed twice due to the pandemic and was then marred with long wait times and missing absentee ballots.

And in St. Petersburg, Florida, city employees can take two hours to volunteer anytime between Oct. 19, when early voting begins, and Election Day on Nov. 3.

Other cities will utilize their employees in different ways.

Last month, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said all city workers will be diverted to the city clerk’s office to help process an estimated 200,000 mail-in ballots on Election Day, a task he said would take roughly 10,000 hours of work.

“We are basically shutting down city government for two days,” he said, “and putting all the city employees at the clerk’s disposal.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram writes for Route Fifty, a digital publication that covers news, technology, innovation and best practices in state, county and municipal governments across the United States.

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