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Pennsylvania had more poll workers than it could handle last year. Where’d they go?

Just a few months ago, huge numbers of people signed up, overwhelming county elections officials. Not anymore.

Voters wait in line on Election Day last November at Nether Providence Elementary in Delaware County.
Voters wait in line on Election Day last November at Nether Providence Elementary in Delaware County.Read moreCharles Fox / File Photograph

Pennsylvania is back to needing poll workers.

Just a few months ago, huge numbers of people signed up, overwhelming counties and putting them in the rare position of having a surplus of volunteers to check in voters on Election Day, set up machines, and troubleshoot problems.

Not anymore.

Every voting precinct in the state is supposed to elect three main poll workers to four-year terms this year. But as the filing deadline for these positions has come and gone, many counties are again seeing the dearth of poll worker candidates they’ve become used to over the years.

A scarcity of poll workers is typical in Pennsylvania. But last year, as then-President Donald Trump fueled concerns about a fair election, officials were met with a different kind of predicament: Thousands of people, many of them younger first-time poll workers, signed up.

“It was a nice problem to have in November last year, to have so many people interested, and I don’t know how we lost them,” said Tim Benyo, chief elections clerk in Lehigh County.

In Pennsylvania, the three main poll workers in a precinct — the judge of elections, a majority-party inspector, and a minority-party inspector — are elected every four years. There are other positions, including clerks and voting machine operators, that are appointed. All poll workers are paid for working election day; some also get compensated for time spent in training. The amount varies by position and county

That means every precinct has three openings for which candidates are supposed to gather signatures to get on the ballot, win the May primary, and then win again in the November general election. (There are always vacancies on the ballot, so some people win four-year terms just with write-in votes.) Many poll worker slots are regularly filled on a temporary basis, with counties appointing people to work a single election.

» READ MORE: From October: People are volunteering to be poll workers in record numbers in Philly and the suburbs

Elections officials say the good news is they have last year’s list of volunteers as they try to fill vacancies. But some had hoped last fall’s recruitment efforts would lead to a rise in candidates this year.

The reasons behind the drop-off aren’t entirely clear. It’s also unclear whether the numbers of actual poll workers will ultimately rise as people decide to keep working one election at a time, instead of for four-year terms.

For now, the number of poll worker candidates in many counties is similar to or lower than in 2017. In Allentown, there are only eight candidates for 93 positions as judge of elections, the chief poll worker in a precinct. Chester County has 194 candidates, down 26% from 2017. Bucks County has the same number as four years ago. And in Philadelphia, the state’s largest county, there are 1,432 candidates, down 29% from 2,026 in 2017. (Data weren’t immediately available for Delaware County).

Even where the numbers are up, they’re still a far cry from three per precinct. Suburban Philadelphia towns in Montgomery County have 644 poll worker candidates this year, up from 608 four years ago. That still leaves about half of the 1,278 slots uncontested.

Like many other elements of election administration, poll workers received a surge of attention in 2020. Now, county elections offices are left with the familiar problem of recruiting workers.

“It’s not completely a bust — I have had a few people step up — but for the most part, we still have a lot of blank spots on the ballot,” said Gerald Feaser Jr., elections director in Dauphin County, home to Harrisburg. “So unless we find somebody to take over many of these vacant spots, we’re going to be scrambling once again.”

Last November was Laura Connell Pyott’s first time working the polls at her Chester County precinct in Tredyffrin Township, a decision compelled by the election’s high stakes and coronavirus risks for elderly workers. After watching Election Day from inside her precinct and witnessing firsthand how elections officials stopped someone from trying to vote twice, she plans to continue for years to come.

“We have a system that feels antiquated and parochial, but it seems to me to work,” said Pyott, 51, an instructor at West Chester University. “It made me want to be a part of it moving forward.”

The filing deadline for elected poll worker positions wasn’t on her radar, Pyott said, but she’d be interested in running for a spot if needed. Pyott said she wishes more of the public could see local elections from the perspective of poll workers, “educating people and making them understand that voter fraud is nearly impossible.”

Recruiting, training, and retaining poll workers has long been a challenge for elections administrators.

In the past, counties’ volunteer lists had dwindled in size. But counties had enough people last year that many built up reserves, with long lists of interested people who, in some cases, officials weren’t even able to get back to.

Samantha Connell, also a first-time poll worker in November, said she will return to work her Manayunk precinct this year, as her health concerns for the typically older poll workers haven’t waned. As more people are vaccinated, though, Connell, 32, said she’s unsure of whether she’ll continue. Her 14-hour shift made for a long and tiring day, she said, but it wasn’t without a silver lining: “I was too tired to stay up late watching election results, which made the whole day worth it.”

“You’re at a greater starting point” when recruiting this year, said Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia city commissioners, the office that runs elections. “That list helps us a lot so we start from a better place than we would.”

Deeley has a lot of vacancies to fill. Out of 5,109 elected poll worker positions in the city — three in each of the 1,703 precincts — there are 3,722, or 73%, without any candidates.

Deeley hopes there are a lot of people who want to be poll workers but don’t want to go through a full election process.

Asked whether the energy from last year will carry forward, Deeley was hopeful — but concerned about parity across the city. Some neighborhoods are seeing a lot more interest than others. In 913 precincts, or about 54%, there isn’t a single person running for one of the three poll worker positions.

“Where that energy seems to be most carrying on is in the areas that we already see energy,” Deeley said.

There’s still opportunity to fill those gaps.

When there’s no one serving a four-year term, a local court can appoint someone. And in the last days before Election Day, county officials can directly appoint people to fill vacancies, but only for one election.

Ideally, people run for and serve four-year terms. In practice, many slots are filled by last-minute one-time appointments, if at all.

East of Harrisburg in Lebanon County, elections director Mike Anderson is looking for enough people willing to serve four-year terms as judges of elections. Those numbers are down, he said, and recruiting for the two inspector positions isn’t on his radar.

“We don’t even talk about inspectors, because they’re always appointed,” he said. “You’re just looking for a warm body that can think and show up, and that’s who you use.”