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PITTSBURGH — Three years ago, W. Ben Towne wrote a social media post complaining about his Pittsburgh polling place’s setup. Voters had to walk by others' screens to vote, he wrote, violating everyone’s right to a secret ballot.
A neighbor saw the post and voted for him as a write-in for judge of elections that year, he said. Towne later received a letter from Allegheny County letting him know he had won.
“I did have to fill out a form to accept it, but yeah,” Towne said.
This year, recruitment efforts from the state government and initiatives like Power to the Polls and the Voter Project have helped bring in an army of new volunteers to work at Pennsylvania’s more than 9,000 polling places.
But between COVID-19, a new set of rules and voting procedures, veiled threats of violence and President Donald Trump sowing doubts — without evidence — about the fairness of the process, election experts predict a challenging day for these poll workers.
“Whether or not a poll worker is equipped with all the information they need to administer whatever’s happening at their polling location, has an enormous impact on the experiences voters have on Election Day,” Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said.
County election officials are responsible for training these newbies, and the level of training they receive varies widely. Elections officials in Delaware County have made in-person training optional, but all poll workers must pass an online 20-question quiz. The county’s website includes various training materials, including videos and documents, for poll workers.
In Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, county officials have offered two-hour in-person training sessions for poll workers, but they aren’t required for everyone. Clerks, who carry out duties assigned by the judges of elections at polling places, do not need training, said Amie Downs, the county’s spokesperson.
Patrick Christmas, policy director of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, said some counties' training is quite brief.
Philadelphia’s training in the past lasted only 20 to 25 minutes, he said. But this year, elections officials there have offered online training for poll workers this year, and some residents have been able to form groups online to share training resources during COVID, Christmas said.
“We’re confident the poll workers and the voters are going to figure this out,” Christmas said.
The surge of volunteers, while welcome, has also led to complaints and confusion.
More than 12,000 people signed up to be a poll worker in Allegheny County this November, Downs said. Elections officials there have now assigned 6,600 poll workers to its 1,300 precincts, and they will all receive their assignments before Tuesday.
They have not been able to contact everyone who will not be assigned, Downs said.
At-large Allegheny County Council Member Sam DeMarco said staff at the elections division are working incredibly hard, but “I heard from people all over the county, ‘Hey I applied to be a poll worker and no one’s called me.’”
The Allegheny County controller’s office handles payroll for poll workers, and the office’s chief legal counsel, Brad Korinski, said Election Day is a challenge because the list of poll workers usually changes on the day. About 80% of the list remains the same, while about 20% of the list changes.
“People don’t show up, new people show up, and that’s where a lot of the confusion lies,” Korinski said.
Juliet Zavon is a Pittsburgh resident and poll worker who has been lobbying the Allegheny County Board of Elections to improve its poll worker training for more than a year.
In her former state of Ohio, she said the poll worker training was three hours, not the two hours Allegheny County officials currently have in place. When she received her assignment in the mail in Ohio, she got an orientation packet with links to information she said she was expected to read. At the end of the three-hour training, she had to pass a short quiz on the training.
“I would never be a poll worker without training,” Zavon said. “It’s like using power saws, power equipment, or firearms without training.”
Aside from basic training, changes to Pennsylvania’s voting laws pose additional challenges this year. For example, poll workers should know that if someone requested a mail-in ballot, brings the entire packet to the polls, and asks for it to be invalidated so they can vote in person, that’s allowed.
But a voter at the polls who requested a mail ballot but did not receive one by Election Day will need to vote by provisional ballot. Similarly, people who don’t bring their entire ballot and envelope materials will have to vote this way. Provisional ballots take longer and are counted later, after it can be determined the individual was allowed to vote and had not already cast a ballot.
“The number of people voting by provisional ballots is going to be much, much higher than any election in previous history,” Towne said. “The training on how to do that is not fantastic and the amount of time it takes to do that, both for the voter and the elections official, is much higher.”
The Brennan Center for Justice is advising election officials across the country to increase their stock of provisional ballots. It cited the first nine days of early voting in Georgia, when 12% of votes came from provisional ballots.
On Monday, Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar said state officials have discussed with counties preparation for more voters casting provisional ballots, but there will be fewer in-person voters than usual, she said, because 2.4 million have already sent in mail ballots.
Joe Melusky, a judge of elections in Blair Township, said he has been working at the polls since 1997 and is confident his polling place is well-trained for Tuesday.
“I’d like to say we’re completely confident, but given the way this election is shaping up, and given the way that thread of litigation hangs over the entire contest, I think it would be an overstatement that anyone can be completely confident,” he said.
Almeida, of Common Cause Pennsylvania, was likewise confident about poll workers' performance come Tuesday, thanks to third-party efforts like the Voter Project, which have also provided supplemental training to their recruits.
“Our hope is that that really helps make sure poll workers have everything they need to run a poll on Election Day,” Almeida said.
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