Arizona Asks Younger People to Sign Up as Poll Workers to Save Seniors

older poll workers sits behind plastic shield at check-in table wearing protective equipment

By Jessica Swarner

July 29, 2020

“I am committed to protecting the institutions of democracy to the extent that I can, but not at the expense of my health.” 

Mary Grier, a retired lawyer living in Scottsdale has served as a poll worker in three elections––the primary and general election in 2018, as well as the Presidential Preference Election earlier this year.

However, this fall she’s chosen what she feels is a safer role: being a poll observer. 

“Primarily because I am over 65, I am at risk for COVID-19. The job of working the polls requires you to show up at 5 in the morning and be in an enclosed space until about 8 or 9 at night,” Grier told The Copper Courier. “So you’re then exposed to hundreds of people coming in to vote and I cannot see how they can make that safe.”

As an observer, Grier will be able to spend more time outside and at a further distance from people. 

RELATED: How the Pandemic Changed the Way We Vote

“I am committed to protecting the institutions of democracy to the extent that I can, but not at the expense of my health,” she said. 

Grier said she knows what happens when technical issues or problems with voting ID requirements lead to delays––congestion and long lines.

She said she hopes most people will rely on mail-in voting, but it’s still possible for crowds to amass in person. 

“If there’s high turnout, and it’s expected that there will be high turnout at this election, you have potential for a lot of people to be crammed into a little space and to be waiting,” she said.

Need for New Faces

Because of the pandemic, Arizona’s Secretary of State’s Office is encouraging younger, healthy people to sign up to be poll workers this fall. 

As the office points out, many poll workers are retirees in their 60s and 70s who are at elevated risk for COVID-19. 

“They have tirelessly performed these duties year after year, election after election. But their age and health conditions put them at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19,” the office website reads. “We can help protect them and honor their service by passing the torch to Arizonans who are at lower risk.” 

If Secretary of State Katie Hobbs had her way, the decision as to who to place at risk wouldn’t be much of an issue—Hobbs advocated that Arizona hold an all-mail election this year. 

RELATED: I’m a Republican. Everyone — Including My Party — Should Embrace Voting By Mail.

“Before the Legislature adjourns, it is vital that we build more flexibility into the law—even if only on a temporary basis—to allow elections officials to adapt to the circumstances on the ground,” Hobbs wrote to lawmakers in mid-March. “Allowing all-mail elections would enable counties to conduct fair and secure elections and ensure that voters can safely vote despite an ongoing health emergency.”

To be able to mail every voter a ballot, the state would need approval from the Legislature. But the House and Senate adjourned in May due to the coronavirus without giving the go-ahead. 

While Democrats have advocated for expanding mail-in voting, Republicans largely stood against it, even though about 80% of Arizonans already vote by mail.

President Donald Trump has led the attacks on mail-in voting, claiming that it leads to rigged elections, despite voter fraud being very rare in the U.S.

In 2018, Trump disbanded a commission he created to investigate voter fraud after it found no evidence that there is a systemic problem.

The president, members of his family, and members of his administration have all cast their ballots by mail in the past.

Passing the Torch

Since counties must plan to open and staff in-person polling locations on and before Election Day, they are in the process of hiring poll workers. 

The Secretary of State’s Office on its website extols the civic virtues of working the polls and offers what safety reassurances it can to those who sign up.

The state did receive $9 million through the Coronavirus Action, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for the elections, with about $1 million going toward equipment to protect poll workers. 

But even with the protective equipment, there are still concerns about having people within six feet of each other for extended periods within an enclosed space.

RELATED: COVID Cases Are Rising Across Arizona. Yet Rep. Bolick Still Opposes Mail-In Voting.

Many counties have yet to hit their poll worker hiring goals and are continuing to recruit.

For example, Pinal County Elections Director Michele Forney said earlier this month the county had hired 530 out of the 540 it needs as a minimum. But ideally, she said, they’d like to have 700 or more.

In the case that there aren’t enough people willing to operate voting centers, contingency plans include combining polling places and tapping county staff to step in and help. 

Gov. Doug Ducey also signed an executive order July 22 allowing state employees to step in as poll workers, if needed, without impacting their pay or leave time.

Cochise County Elections Director, Lisa Marra, said because many of her county’s dedicated poll workers are older, her staff is encouraging them to put their health first.

“It’s truly unfortunate in the current pandemic that we didn’t allow Arizona counties (who pay the cost of elections) the option to move to all mail if it worked for them,” Marra said. “Instead, we’re requiring poll workers, who are mostly elderly, to gather in crowds with voters on election day.”

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.



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