In a time of crisis, election officials are counting on West Virginians to step up and into their local polling places not only to vote, but to pull a double civic duty as a poll worker during the 2020 general election.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented its share of systemic challenges, particularly when it comes to voting. That included a shortage of poll workers in the spring, as many seasoned poll workers elected not to volunteer due to concerns about catching the virus, said Matt Gallagher, program coordinator for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office.
West Virginia needs a minimum of about 9,000 poll workers throughout its roughly 1,700 precincts to run an election without having to close or consolidate precincts, Gallagher said.
Right now, Gallagher said it appears there are that many, as well as almost 1,000 potential alternates, although people still are being vetted.
“Right now, we don’t know of many major issues,” Gallagher said Friday, 59 days before the Nov. 3 general election. “We’re still doing our best to prepare, so in case something were to happen, we have a big list of alternates we can send off to our communities.”
Gallagher said there’s no such thing as having too many available poll workers when election day comes around. He said he wants to avoid a situation that leads to voters having to spend hours waiting in line to vote, or potentially not voting at all.
“Our elections can’t function without poll workers,” he said. “They’re necessary to make sure that polls open on time. Without an adequate number of poll workers, they won’t open on time, if at all. If you don’t have poll workers, voters are subject to long lines, having to wait hours to vote. In West Virginia, that hasn’t been the case, but we’ve seen it elsewhere.”
Ideally, each polling place has five poll workers, Gallagher said. In the midst of the pandemic, some polling places were forced to operate with as few as three poll workers during the state’s June 9 primary election.
There were enough workers to cover the polling places in June thanks, in part, to the hundreds of alternate poll workers who were able to step up the day of the election.
Poll workers get paid anywhere between $125 and $220 for their work on Election Day, depending on which county they work in, Gallagher said. A person only can work as a poll worker in the county in which they are registered to vote.
In Putnam County, County Clerk Brian Wood uses five poll workers as a minimum at each of the 74 precincts in his county. At some of the more crowded polling places, as many as eight or nine poll workers are used, he said.
Wood noted poll workers, as a group, tend to be “an older population, in general” and are thus at a greater risk of contracting more severe cases of COVID-19.
Wood said his priority, and every county clerk’s priority, is to make sure voters and poll workers, alike, are safe on election day. He said they keep their options open to make sure they have plenty of poll workers available.
“Every clerk in the state is always taking names and numbers,” Wood said. “That way they have a short list of people to fill in those gaps (on Election Day). We’ll take names and numbers all the way up until Election Day.”
Poll workers must be 18 years old at the time of the November general election and be a registered voter. The deadline to register to vote in West Virginia is Oct. 13.
People qualified to be poll workers have to participate in a two-hour training session that is being made available both online and in-person. Most county clerks will offer training up until just a few days before the election, Gallagher said. In Putnam County, Wood’s office pays people $50 for completing the training.
“I understand that we live in a fast food world, and everybody wants it right then and now,” Wood said. “These people are stepping up and doing a job not everyone’s willing to do, and trying to do that job to make sure the integrity of everyone’s votes is safe and secure. If it takes time to get it right, that’s what poll workers need to do.”