[Image via techandciviclife]

The March 26, 2020 electionlineWeekly features a story by Whitney May of the Center for Tech and Civic Life about the experiences she and her colleagues had as pollworkers during the March 17 Illinois primary. It’s a good read:

Imagine a decade ago: the first iPad was released, “Tik Tok” was just a popular song by Ke$ha, and I was training election judges in Durham County, North Carolina. At the time, our training curriculum focused on standard procedures like setting up voting equipment, processing voters, controlling ballot reconciliation paperwork, and completing provisional envelopes. We also covered a handful of mild  ‘what if’ scenarios, including “What if an election judge tries to sell Tupperware in the voting enclosure?” In 2010, cybersecurity and global pandemics were not on our radar for training topics.

Fast forward 10 years and today’s election officials (and the poll workers they manage) are operating in a new reality where more and more rapid response plans are being added to their long list of fundamental election responsibilities. At the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), we’re supporting election departments to meet these rising challenges by providing tools, training, and best practices. And we believe being a poll worker is one of the best ways to serve our local communities and stay grounded in the evolving profession of election administration.

On March 17th, six of CTCL’s Chicago staff served as election judges for the 2020 Illinois Presidential Primary during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were stationed in both the city and the suburbs, in school auditoriums and American Legion halls, as ballot clerks and epollbook operators. For some of the team, this was their first election judge experience while for others it was a return to the post. This is our story: 

Anxious start with special precautions
As one might guess, we had anxiety from the start due to many factors surrounding COVID-19. We wondered if the other election judges would show up. Would the primary be postponed at the last minute like Ohio? How would we set up the voting space for social distancing?

Needless to say, the primary happened and the staffing levels were manageable for most of our polling places. We worked within the physical constraints of our voting enclosures to create more space between workstations and voting booths where possible. And while we weren’t always able to achieve the recommended 6 feet, there were instances where it was easier to implement.

Josh Simon Goldman, who served as an election judge in the City of Chicago, creatively used masking tape to mark spots for voters to stand while they were waiting in line to check in.

Rocío Hernandez, a Cook County election judge, received pop-up reminders on her epollbook screen throughout the day. The reminders encouraged election judges to follow basic guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We all took other health precautions like bringing hand sanitizer, latex gloves, and sanitizing wipes. In fact, most of the election judges we worked with brought their own supply as well as a surplus to share with the group.

Some voters had their own safety gear and ballot-marking pens, which was voter behavior we hadn’t seen in previous elections. Overall, it was clear that staying healthy was a top concern and a team effort. There was the sense that we were (and are) all in this together.

Low levels of turnout and high levels of gratitude

However, the unofficial results currently show about 31% turnout for the City of Chicago. This is lower compared to previous primaries with comparable contests like the 2008 and 2016 primaries which both had voter turnout over 50%. But even with lower turnout, there was a steady stream of about 250 voters across each of our assigned polling places. And the slower pace of the day provided us with time to wipe down booths, touchscreen voting machines, pens, doorknobs, and table surfaces.In addition to following special precautions, we were also curious about voter turnout during a pandemic. Would COVID-19 discourage people from leaving home to vote on Election Day? Would the arrival patterns change? The Chicago Board of Elections did take steps to encourage more people to vote before Election Day. This included extending early voting hours and vote-by-mail request deadlines.

While turnout was depressed, our spirits were not. Election judges, voters, and others expressed gratitude for each other and democracy. One voter brought us chocolate candies along with sanitized serving tongs wrapped in aluminum foil. The school we were in, which was closed, was offering free breakfast and lunch to students in the neighborhood and they offered their packed meals to us as well. Overall, most people were effusive, even one voter who lamented that the pandemic had closed all the Chicago pubs on St. Patrick’s Day.

Considerations for November 2020
With remaining state primaries in limbo and the Democractic presidential primary race inching closer to a winner, much of the nation’s attention is now turning its focus to the general election in November. And the working assumption is that COVID-19 will continue to disrupt business as usual, elections being no exception. With this in mind, election officials, experts, and government leaders are exploring ways to ensure all eligible citizens will have safe, convenient, and accessible options to participate. These include options to register to vote as well as request, receive, mark, and cast their ballots. 

Reflecting on our election judge experiences, we’re interested in how election departments might successfully:

  • Adjust policies, procedures, and resources to manage an increase in mail ballots
  • Invite more people to vote by mail, and communicate deadlines that give voters adequate time to request, receive, and return their ballot
  • Inform voters of their options to return their mail ballot, whether that’s to a polling place, drop box, and/or vote center
  • Recruit and train enough poll workers to maintain safe and convenient in-person voting locations before and on Election Day

While so much is uncertain right now, you can count on CTCL to stay curious, be poll workers again, and continue supporting election officials with tools, training, and best practices that address the newest challenges in the field. You can find CTCL resources to support your office with implementing vote-by-mail, and we’ll be expanding these webinars  in the coming weeks and months. And recognizing that accurate, up-to-date election information is more important than ever this year, we’re also offering online courses in May and July to boost election departments’ digital communication skills.

As we continue working through these unprecedented times, CTCL is here to produce materials that are helpful to you. We need your feedback to make that happen.  What resources or support would be useful to your election office during the COVID-19 pandemic? What questions are you trying to answer right now? What do your policymakers need to know? Share your ideas about election administration during COVID-19 by completing this form.

I have known Whitney and the team at CTCL for years now – and there is not a more dedicated and creative team of #electiongeeks in the field right now. Readers would be well-advised to take full advantage of their resources, which are valuable tools for coping with anything (not just pandemics) the world can throw and election official’s way. Thanks to her and all of her CTCL colleagues for their service on what must have been a fascinating (and, admittedly, a little scary) Election Day. Thanks also, as always, to my friend Mindy Moretti for using the electionlineWeekly platform to share this story with the election community. [Not subscribed? Do it here.] Best wishes to everyone out there; be safe, be well … and stay tuned!