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When longtime Kansas City resident Mary King showed up for her poll worker shift during Missouri’s presidential primary election March 10, she didn’t realize it might be the last time she’d work an election this year.
King, 81, has been a poll worker since the mid-1990s and an active member of the Kansas City community for decades. In 1975, she was hired as the first Black receptionist with the Kansas City FBI. After retiring, she’s stayed active with several community organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the Order of the Eastern Star and the Blue Hills Neighborhood Association.
“I just know a lot of people and I enjoy people,” King said. “Whatever I do, whatever I get involved in, I just go all the way in.”
But this year, King is one of many longtime Kansas City area poll workers who will be staying home Nov. 3 because they are in an at-risk group for contracting COVID-19. The majority of poll workers in the U.S. are over the age of 60. For the 2016 presidential election, 55.9% of the more than 900,000 poll workers were 61 and older, according to the 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey.
Poll workers are essential to elections, especially in states like Missouri and Kansas that are not primarily vote-by-mail. Poll workers are responsible for setting up the check-in stations and ballot machines, helping ensure voters fill out and cast their ballots correctly and get their coveted “I voted” stickers, and this year, maintaining socially distant and sanitized voting booths.
The poll worker shortage in the Kansas City area was more critical in the first elections after governor-issued states of emergency in each state. With fewer poll workers, some local election boards had to close polling sites, leaving voters confused.
“Going into the August election, we had more people (poll workers) than usual say they weren’t available, and that was largely because of concern about coronavirus,” said Chris Hershey, director of elections at the Platte County, Missouri, Board of Elections.
In Platte County this summer, the lack of poll workers forced the Hoover, Missouri, voting site to close. Hershey said this impacted about 2,000 voters who had to vote in the jurisdiction down the road, in Platte City. Some voters had to travel up to 6 miles farther than they normally would.
But in the weeks ahead of the general election, some election boards across the metro are seeing a different situation unfold: Platte County has seen an uptick in people signing up to be poll workers.
“That’s really working to our advantage,” Hershey said. “Because we obviously need every position staffed, but we’ve added some people beyond what we would normally include, and those people are going to kind of manage the voting area and make sure that it’s being sanitized.”
Since the August primary, Platte County has seen 270 new poll workers, adding to the existing pool of about 400 poll workers.
‘We could staff this election four times over’
In Missouri and Kansas, poll workers are required to complete a training session prior to Election Day. The pay rate varies by county, but in the Kansas City metro, poll workers receive between $25 and $45 for training, and from $125 to $275 for working on Election Day. Some counties also offer hazard pay because of the risks posed while working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amy Ashelford, a new poll worker in Platte County, said she’s excited to be involved. It wasn’t until after the August primary that she decided to sign up.
“I looked around and saw that everybody was significantly older than me and they were willing to work the polls in a pandemic, wearing their masks,” said Ashelford, 44. “I felt a little bit, maybe, ashamed … that I hadn’t taken the step to volunteer to be part of it.”
In recent months, the Kansas City metro has seen a trend of younger people signing up. Nathan Carter with the Johnson County, Kansas, Election Office said 55% of the new poll workers there are 50 or younger.
In Clay County, Missouri, the community response has been unprecedented, said Sheena Fox, deputy clerk at the Clay County Board of Election Commissioners.
“We could staff this election four times over,” Fox said.
“This is the opposite problem I’ve had in the past. I’ve struggled to staff every election I’ve ever worked, and now every day people are calling, asking if I got their application.”
Clay County needs roughly 500 poll workers to staff the upcoming election, and Fox has received over 2,000 new applications since the summer.
“It’s wonderful that no matter what, I know we’re staffed,” Fox said. “I’m really appreciative of everyone getting out there. … What I would appreciate more is if people would realize that there’s other important elections besides the presidential.”
Missouri’s bipartisan requirement generates problem in Jackson County
While Fox said she’s seen more people sign up in recent months than ever before, she points out that most of the new poll workers are also Democrats.
This can pose a problem for local election authorities. In Missouri, election sites are required to be staffed by equal numbers of registered Republicans and Democrats. But in areas like Jackson County, both the Jackson County and Kansas City election boards are experiencing a surge in Democrats signing up and are struggling to find enough Republicans.
Jackson County Election Board Director Tammy Brown said it still lacks about 150 Republican poll workers. Brown said she receives roughly 30 Democrat sign-ups a day, versus about four from Republicans.
Shawn Kieffer, Republican director of elections for the Kansas City Election Board, said over 90% of new applicants are Democrats.
“This has always been an issue,” Kieffer said. “It’s just the makeup of the people in Kansas City.”
The office needs about 1,200 poll workers for the upcoming election, and it has received over 3,000 applications. With the influx of Democrats signing up, Kieffer said he’s been able to prioritize younger people, who aren’t as high-risk for contracting COVID-19. He’s had to turn many away, though, who want to work.
This includes people like King, who is a standby election judge for the upcoming election. Although King is in an at-risk age group for contracting COVID-19, she said she’s still willing to work at the polls.
“If push came to shove, I would be glad to come and do it,” King said.
With the abundance of young Democrats willing to work the polls in Kansas City, King might not get a call to show up. But she’s been finding other ways to help people vote.
King said she makes a habit of providing resources to help voters in her personal network learn about candidates and ballot issues. In recent weeks, she has driven some of her friends to Union Station to cast their absentee ballots.
“I took two ladies down there last week to go vote. … They didn’t know where to go,” King said. “These are friends of mine that don’t have a way to get around. I do have transportation and I do get around.”
A national effort
Many local election officials attribute the increase in young poll workers to social media and celebrities. In Clay County, Fox said a lot of new poll workers have told her they heard about the shortage from “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.”
Noah and other celebrities have partnered with the national nonpartisan organization Power the Polls to encourage young people to sign up to become poll workers. The organization’s main goal, Co-Director Scott Duncombe said, is “making sure no polling places close, that everyone is able to vote in a timely, safe way, and that we can get the election running as smoothly as possible.”
Power the Polls launched earlier this year with the goal of recruiting a quarter of a million people to be poll workers. With about 650,000 sign-ups, they’ve more than doubled that goal.
“The distribution of folks isn’t necessarily going to match where there’s need,” Duncombe said. “So we’re still trying to recruit folks in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida.”
Hundreds of counties across the U.S. are facing more critical poll worker shortages than the Kansas City metro, including those in battleground states like Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Still, about 5,000 people in Missouri and 2,300 in Kansas have signed up as poll workers through Power the Polls.
For the thousands of poll workers across the Kansas City metro area, like Ashelford in Platte County, Nov. 3 will be a long day. Ashelford said she’ll show up to her assigned location at 5 a.m.
“I’ve always been somebody that has believed it’s very important to vote … and I’m excited to be a part of making sure that voting does happen here in our country,” Ashelford said.
On Nov. 3, polling places in both Missouri and Kansas will close at 7 p.m. For poll workers, the day will end a little later — once all voters who are in line by 7 p.m. have cast their ballots and the polls are cleaned and shut down.
Jamie Hobbs is a freelance reporter with The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter at @jamieahobbs.
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