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Supervisors Expect Fully-Staffed Election Day Polling Sites

Okaloosa County Elections Supervisor Paul Lux shows poll workers how to use voting machines during a training session in early September.
Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections - Facebook Page
Okaloosa County Elections Supervisor Paul Lux shows poll workers how to use voting machines during a training session in early September.

Despite previous concerns over a potential pandemic-related poll worker shortage, one elections office in Northwest Florida had so many applicants in the weeks leading up to early voting that some people were turned away.

Erin Rosenstock, 40, is one of many civic-minded Okaloosa County residents who responded to local and national calls for poll workers ahead of the general election.

“I had read a bunch about the need for poll workers," she said. “My concern is voter suppression in general.”

Over the summer, the Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections’ office expressed a need for applicants, particularly younger ones, ahead of the August primary elections. Many poll workers are seniors, who are more vulnerable to developing serious COVID-19 illness. Inadequately staffed voting sites can lead to confusion and longer wait times.

Rosenstock says she was concerned enough to submit an online application. She says she also mailed a copy. “I never got a call,” she said. “I never got a follow up.”

That’s when she hand-delivered a hard copy to the elections office in Shalimar. Still, no word. “I thought it was weird that I didn’t get a call or anything," said Rosenstock, who ultimately reported the problem to ProPublica’s Electionland project. By that time, early voting was about to begin and the office's poll worker roster had been filled.

Still, she says she couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t train her in case some workers were required to stay home due to COVID-19 illness or close contact with an infected person.

“A global pandemic is going on,” Rosenstock said. “Why wouldn’t you take somebody who is willing and able? And just say, ‘Hey, we don’t need you necessarily, but would you be willing to be a substitute?’ And my answer would’ve been ‘yes.’”

In the weeks leading up to the election, the office received more poll worker applications than training slots available, said Paul Lux, supervisor of elections. But he says he couldn’t give an exact number of applicants who weren’t called back.

“At some point, you run out of time to train people,” Lux said. “If the need arises, those will be some of the first people we start calling.”

Across 52 voting precincts, 414 poll workers are scheduled to help voters cast ballots, Lux said. “Rather than just staff to the minimum, we have decided to pay and field everybody for Election Day.”

Lux says the county has already seen higher-than-usual voter turnout. On Monday evening, the county's online elections' tracker reported a 61% turnout with 91,297 mail-in and in-person ballots cast. He says he expects this enthusiasm to continue throughout Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

“We know it’s going to be a busy day,” Lux said. “We know that means people are going to need to take breaks from this job or that job. We want to make sure that every location has an ample supply of people to do all of those things.”

“In addition to the heavy recruiting that we did, there was a big push nationally," Lux said, referring to National Poll Worker Recruitment Day on Sept. 1. He says that "brought in a lot of applications.”

Lux says local political groups and nonpartisan organizations, such as the Rotary Club, put the word out to their members. National organizations - including Power the Polls - used social media outreach to encourage younger people to apply to become a workers.

“There were a lot of groups that put out the word to their membership,” Lux said. “We’ve got a lot of really sharp new poll workers.”

Okaloosa County isn't the only county in the region where residents overwhelmingly responded to calls for help at the polls.

In Bay County, roughly 450 elections staff positions have been filled across 14 “super voting” locations - where any voter can cast a ballot regardless of precinct, said Mark Andersen, supervisor of elections. “Everyone is trained.”

He says election employees are required to wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible. Poll workers will continue to encourage voters to do the same, Andersen said.

“We want to spend less than five minutes with the voter,” he said. “No chitchat inside the polling location will be one of our requirements. Less talk means less spread.”

Andersen says he also has substitutes ready to fill in for workers who must self-isolate at home due to coronavirus illness or close contact with an infected person.

“We always have alternates in place.”

This story was produced with the help of tips reported through ProPublica's Electionland project. If you experience or witness a problem voting, please let us know.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.