In Year of Voting by Mail, a Scramble to Beef Up In-Person Voting, Too

PHILADELPHIA — Unnerved by the difficulties of voting amid a pandemic and faced with both the political static injected by President Trump and the limits on expanding voting by mail, state and local authorities across the country are racing to rethink and reinforce the polling sites where tens of millions of people are still expected to cast their ballots.

For all of the attention on voting by mail, perhaps four in 10 votes — 60 million ballots — are likely to be cast in person this fall, either early or on Election Day. Overall turnout could well reach 150 million for the first time, up from 137.5 million in 2016, according to Barry C. Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Against the backdrop of Mr. Trump’s relentless criticism of voting by mail, the breakdowns at the Postal Service and the relatively high rate of rejections of mailed-in ballots, election officials and activists in both parties are amping up efforts to hire and train poll workers; integrate stadiums, arenas and malls into their voting options; and come up with contingency plans if there’s a surge in coronavirus cases in the fall.

A major area of concern is finding younger people who are able to replace older ones most susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19 at a time when 58 percent of the nation’s poll workers are 61 or older.

“Everyone’s focusing on the rate of voting by mail, which is going to easily double what it was in 2016 — somewhere north of 80 million ballots,” said Paul Gronke, an expert on in-person voting at Reed College in Portland, Ore. “But people aren’t paying attention to what might happen if there’s a spike in the pandemic or a shortage of poll workers and there’s a last-minute reduction in in-person voting.”

“In some of our minds, the nightmare scenario isn’t about voting by mail,” he said. “It’s a meltdown at the polling places.”

It’s not clear whether many voters are rethinking plans to vote by mail, although early research on the issue confirms that a disproportionate number of Democrats plans to vote by mail, and many Republicans are following Mr. Trump’s cue and refusing that option. There is a clear need to ensure that in-person voting works, particularly in many cities with large Black and brown populations.

In Cuyahoga County in Ohio, which includes Cleveland and is roughly 29 percent Black and 66 percent white, white neighborhoods had a 30 percent absentee ballot request rate in the 2020 primary, whereas Black neighborhoods had only a 15 percent request rate, and Hispanic neighborhoods had a 17 percent request rate, according to a recent study by Demos, a liberal think tank.

Shoring up in-person voting has focused on both poll workers and polling places.

The stuffy church basements and senior-living centers that were once reliable voting sites are now unusable. The tolerance for long lines has shrunk drastically. Where administrators used to fret about the occasional equipment breakdowns and ballot shortages, they must worry now about backup plans if a coronavirus outbreak shutters a polling site or sidelines the poll workers who have staffed it.

Image“In some of our minds, the nightmare scenario isn’t about voting by mail,” Paul Gronke, an expert on in-person voting at Reed College in Portland, Ore., said. “It’s a meltdown at the polling places.”
Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Mr. Gronke recalled a tabletop exercise this summer about possible election disaster scenarios. One official from a tiny jurisdiction asked for advice should one of the four election workers in its single office contract the coronavirus a week before the election, forcing the remaining three into quarantine.

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Updated 2020-09-05T12:05:40.998Z

“That just stopped the conversation,” he said.

Some locales are making do with relatively minor adjustments. In Hennepin County, Minn., home to Minneapolis and 800,000 registered voters, officials have closed a few cramped voting sites and consolidated them with precincts where the polling place is more spacious. Recruitment of poll workers has gone well, and a trial run of the new plans during a local primary last month was judged a success, said Ginny Gelms, the Hennepin County elections manager.

“This election will be difficult,” she said, “but we’re feeling pretty good right now.”

Maricopa County, Ariz., one of the nation’s largest voting jurisdictions, which includes Phoenix, has effectively redrawn its election system to address health concerns.

A review after the primary election in March concluded that many of the 500 polling places were too small to safely accommodate voters, Megan Gilbertson, a spokeswoman for the county elections department, said in an interview. So for the November election, polling has been moved to as many as 175 voting centers, in places like shopping malls and convention facilities.

Eighty of the sites will be open for a 27-day early voting period that will feature expanded evening and weekend hours. Both then and on November 3, voters will be able to cast a ballot at any of the sites.

The consolidation carries an extra benefit: It allowed the county to slash its 3,600-person corps of poll workers in half — to 1,800 — even while expanding the number of check-in stations at each polling place.

Maricopa was able to use federal grant money from the coronavirus stimulus program for its transformation. But major election changes cost money that most jurisdictions don’t have.

Credit…Mark Makela for The New York Times

A central goal nationwide is to prevent the drastic consolidation of polling locations that plagued some of the biggest cities in the country during the primaries and led to hourslong lines. Milwaukee had just five polling locations from 180 in April, and Philadelphia consolidated to just 200 sites from 830 in June. While some locations were moved because they were near sites with populations vulnerable to the coronavirus, such as a nursing home, the largest factor in consolidating polling stations has been a shortage of poll workers.

Given health fears for older people, government officials and nonprofits, including More Than a Vote, the collective of athletes headlined by LeBron James, have started national campaigns to recruit younger citizens to be poll workers.

Philadelphia is mounting a 60-day sprint to find roughly 3,000 more poll workers between now and Election Day — on top of the more than 4000 already hired. To sweeten the pot, the city announced last week that it would be raising the pay to as much as $250 per poll worker for Election Day.

At an event outside Philadelphia’s City Hall last week, the message was clear: Save the 2020 election. Become a poll worker.

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“So, today, I’m calling on millennials — 18 to 35, or 40 — to step up, take this baton and represent democracy,” said Abu Edwards, a co-founder of Millennials in Action, one of roughly a dozen speakers who called for younger voters to work the polls. “We are in the fourth quarter of this election, and poll workers, you are our referees.”

Some saw more practical reasons to help out.

“With the pandemic, we’re all unemployed, so, why not?” said Lee Jones, 20, who signed up after the speeches.

Other areas have had more luck, thanks to an outpouring of public support after reports of election debacles this spring. Spurred by the chaos in Georgia’s primary, the Metro Atlanta Chamber started a website last month to recruit poll workers, and has netted 1,500 volunteers from 50 of the state’s 159 counties. Fulton County, home to Atlanta, needs 2,000 volunteers — and now has a list of more than 8,000, said Katie Kirkpatrick, the Chamber’s president.

In Buncombe County, N.C., where early voting started on Friday, the county has already filled 500 of its 700 poll-worker slots and has a long list of applicants for the remainder. County government employees are being allowed to work at the polls instead of their regular jobs, and the state legislature has voted to exempt pay for poll workers from figuring in unemployment benefit calculations.

Credit…Mark Makela for The New York Times

Businesses are playing an increasing role. The clothing chain Old Navy said this week that it would give a paid day off to any of its 50,000 employees who work at the polls. Hundreds of companies, from the Coca-Cola Company to Mailchimp to Patagonia, have made Election Day a paid holiday or given employees time off to vote or to perform election work, and 23 states require companies to grant time off to vote.

Professional sports teams in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and elsewhere have offered up their arenas for voting and other election purposes; their size making for a much safer location amid coronavirus than a middle school basement.

In Detroit, all four major teams offered up their facilities, and each will be used differently. Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers, will serve as a ballot drop off center. Little Ceasars Arena, where the Pistons and Red Wings play, will be used to safely train poll workers. Ford Field, home of the Lions, will become a centralized hub where all precincts will deliver their ballots for processing and auditing.

Election experts have welcomed the addition of arenas, but only if they serve to increase the options for voters, not replace them.

“What’s really important is that the arenas are an addition, not an instead of,” said Sylvia Albert, the director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Washington. “We can’t close down local polling locations in neighborhoods, because people need to be able to vote in their communities.”

Credit…Mark Makela for The New York Times

At the event in Philadelphia, tables were set up to recruit poll workers. One woman, Trana Loglisci, 49, approached a table before the event started and signed up. She said she recalled how difficult it was in June to vote in the primary and wanted to get involved.

“I like to try to make a difference somehow,” she said.

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