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People are volunteering to be poll workers in record numbers in Philly and the suburbs

So many thousands of applicants have signed up that elections officials are in the unusual position of having to turn people away.

Across the state, huge numbers of Pennsylvanians — many of them younger and first-time poll workers — have enlisted to check in voters on Election Day, set up voting machines, and troubleshoot problems.
Across the state, huge numbers of Pennsylvanians — many of them younger and first-time poll workers — have enlisted to check in voters on Election Day, set up voting machines, and troubleshoot problems.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Samantha Connell laughed in disbelief at the automated text message that flashed across her phone earlier this month:

“Philadelphia County is hiring folks to check-in voters and make sure the elections run smoothly here on Nov. 3rd. Are you interested?”

For weeks, Connell, 32, had repeatedly called her local elections office to confirm whether she had been selected as a poll worker. But she kept getting busy tone after busy tone — at least 25 times over several weeks — until she got through, and got the job.

“I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ ” she joked about the text message that came not long after.

Connell, a Manayunk resident who works in marketing, first signed up to be a volunteer in September when she heard there might be a shortage, thinking of the usual group of elderly women who work at her precinct.

“I vote every election, every primary," she said. “I’m healthy. I have vacation days I’m not using this year, why not?”

Thanks to others like her, two weeks before Election Day, there is far from a shortage.

Across the state, huge numbers of Pennsylvanians — many of them younger and first-time poll workers — have enlisted to check in voters on Election Day, set up voting machines, and troubleshoot problems. So many thousands of applicants have signed up in Philadelphia and its suburban counties that elections officials are in the unusual position of having a surplus.

Elections officials have long worried about the ability to staff the polls during elections, describing the shortage of poll workers as a crisis and trying to find new sources of workers. But this year, the number of volunteers is staggering, and officials are racing just to keep up.

“Every county is in far better shape than, I think, maybe ever, in the history of elections because of this huge, huge influx of volunteers in the community,” Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, whose department oversees elections, told reporters Friday. “Usually at this point before the election, there’s a lot more concern about the vacancies.”

Now, instead of scrambling to staff voting locations, the Philadelphia region is creating “reserve” lists, with plans to call in willing volunteers in case of last-minute cancellations. And officials hope their new recruits will stick around for future, lower-turnout elections, when there are just as many polling places — and just as many poll workers needed.

“It’s a good position to be in, and it’s one of the many unexpected things from this pandemic,” said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and clerk of its election board.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about voting in Pennsylvania, in-person or by mail

Nationwide, pleas for poll workers have been desperate given fears of a coronavirus-driven shortage. Groups like Power the Polls have sponsored ads on social media and sent mass automated text messages, encouraging a younger generation to volunteer. Typically, poll workers tend to be older (58% in 2018 were over the age of 61, according to Pew Research Center), a population at greater risk from COVID-19. And leading up to a presidential election in a public health crisis, officials feared for the worst.

But across Pennsylvania, the recruiting efforts have paid off.

In Philadelphia, more than 20,000 people answered the call for 8,500 poll worker positions, said Omar Sabir, one of the three city commissioners who run local elections. Bucks County received “several hundred more than needed,” according to county spokesperson Larry King. And polling places in Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties will be well staffed, too, officials said.

“Amid the chaos and terrible things this year, this response has been a total bright spot,” said Lauren Cristella, chief advancement officer at the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan, good-government group. “It’s really heartwarming to see some people stepping up.”

But with the influx of volunteers, communication from the counties' already thinly spread election offices has been scant. Officials said there’s a chance that some people who volunteered just won’t hear back from them.

“We’re grateful they applied, but we just don’t have the bandwidth to reach out to everybody,” said Delaware County Council member Christine Reuther.

The spotty communication is heightening anxiety for some first-timers who were chosen like Connell. She’s now tasked with helping ensure that voting runs smoothly in a pivotal swing state, and during an election in which President Donald Trump has called on his supporters to scrutinize polling places in Philadelphia.

“I know people have problems with voting machines every year,” Connell said. “I just want to be prepared.”

Philadelphia and its surrounding counties say they are rolling out training materials, reimagined for the pandemic. Last week, Philadelphia and Montgomery County sent out links to online training videos, while Chester County began the process the week before. Bucks County has begun its virtual on-boarding, and is offering outdoor, socially-distanced training, too, King said. And Delaware County sent letters to its poll workers last week.

The Committee of Seventy is also providing supplemental information for poll workers, including online sessions with opportunities to ask commissioners questions, and education on coronavirus-specific poll worker protocol — like how to facilitate conversations about virus safety, and “hammering home” that voters are not required to wear masks, Cristella said. (The right to vote supersedes the statewide executive order requiring people to wear masks in public places, officials have said.)

» READ MORE: As registration deadline nears, a mad dash in Philadelphia to reach voters

In Philadelphia, the group will also supply physical how-to charts for poll workers on Election Day, guides for helping people surrender their mail ballots if they changed their mind and want to vote in person, working new voting machines, and other anticipated “pain points.”

“Poll workers play a crucial role in protecting the right to vote,” Cristella said. “Chaos and understaffing can lead to disenfranchisement.”

For those not working the polls, there are still other ways to help, officials said, including volunteering with community groups and local political parties, encouraging friends and family to vote, and returning their own ballots early.

Nancy O’Brien, 59, a first-time poll worker in Chester County, said she just hopes to do her part to “help things go off smoothly.”

This, she said, “is the first election in my lifetime where it’s turning out to be such an incredible effort to vote and feel confident that everything can be fair."