Philadelphia elections officials are asking the state for permission to cut the number of polling places the city will open for the June 2 primary by more than 60%, or to deploy the National Guard to compensate for an unprecedented shortage of poll workers.
If the state approves, Philadelphia will have fewer than 332 polling places, compared with its normal 830 or so. Otherwise, the city’s chief elections official said, she won’t have enough poll workers to hold the election.
“Depending on the number of polling places that is acceptable to ensure state approval, we may require as much as 1,500 National Guardsmen to supplement our poll worker recruitment,” said Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners.
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc with 2020 voting in Pennsylvania and many other states.
Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said this week/ that the National Guard could be called upon to staff election sites for counties short of poll workers. They would be dressed in civilian attire. About 2,400 citizen-soldiers and airmen from the Wisconsin National Guard served as poll workers for that state’s April 7 primary.
Philadelphia is one of four counties that have asked the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, to grant an exemption allowing it to reduce polling places by more than the 60% authorized in the emergency law that postponed the state’s primary from April.
“Entire election boards are telling us that they will not be working due to COVID-19,” Deeley said. “We have been exploring our election day plan for some time now.”
It’s unclear how much more than the 60% reduction Philadelphia is seeking. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, has asked whether it can reduce its number of polling places by as much as 90%. Cameron and Forest Counties, two of the least populated in the state, have also requested exemptions.
Elections officials around the state have echoed Philadelphia’s concerns as poll workers cancel, wary of contracting the virus.
“I can’t blame them. We’re not shopping around the most attractive product,” said Tim Benyo, chief clerk of elections for Lehigh County, which is short about 200 poll workers out of 1,000. “Low pay, long hours, and the chance of getting sick — that’s not exactly something that people are knocking down the door to do.”
Poll workers tend to be older, making them particularly vulnerable to the virus. Counties across the state have struggled to retain and replace poll workers who in some cases have dropped out en masse. Compounding the problem: Some locations no longer want to open up as polling places, including senior homes and private businesses that under normal circumstances host voting machines and thousands of voters.
Benyo said that in Lehigh County, his office is looking to erect tents outside facilities that don’t want voting set up indoors. He’s posted poll-worker jobs on the state’s CareerLink website and is trying to make a push on social media and in the news media.
Elections officials, activists, and others are scrambling to try to ease the poll-worker and polling-place burden, including urging people to vote by mail. Bob Brady, the chair of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, said he is preparing to rally the city’s elected officials to call for postponing the election for voter and poll-worker safety.
“There’s no comfort level for people to go vote, there’s no comfort level for people to man [polling places],” he said. “And you call in the National Guard, does that mean the National Guard won’t get sick? Does that mean they’re immune to the virus?”
Brady said he’s also concerned about the possibility “you’re disenfranchising voters by going to a very low number of polling places.”
The emergency changes in state law that allow for consolidating polling places also allow voters to work the polls outside their home precincts, expanding the pool by providing flexibility. The state on Wednesday also reduced the number of poll workers required at a given location when they consolidate polling places. That eases pressure, county elections officials said, but they’re still struggling to find enough willing staffers.
Allegheny County normally has about 6,500 poll workers, elections chief David Voye said. This election, depending on how few polling places the state allows it to open, the county will need 1,000 to 1,500 workers.
“We have already nearly 500 committed to working on June 2 and have only been making calls for a few days,” Voye said.
Counties must finalize their polling places by Wednesday. Some, including Berks and Bucks Counties, are planning to open as many polling places as usual, though they’ve moved some locations. Others are reducing by up to the 60% mark. Montgomery County, for example, will open just 140 locations instead of 352.
Rural counties in the western part of the state, which have fewer voters and far fewer confirmed coronavirus cases, are also faring better.
In Mercer County, which has slowly started to reopen, elections director Jeff Greenburg said 84 of 85 polling locations have given his office the green light. He’s only down about 20 poll workers.
“Clearly the eastern part of the state is in a much different situation,” he said. Still, he looks at poll workers and says the pandemic has exposed the need to get younger people involved.
“To me, the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, for the most part, have carried elections for decades,” Greenburg said. “And it is definitely time for Millennials and Generation X and Y to seriously look at contributing to their communities and their country in this way.”