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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan COVID surge thins poll worker ranks, prompting fears of vote delays

LANSING — With coronavirus cases surging across Michigan, election clerks are moving to replace poll workers who have dropped out after contracting the virus, reporting exposure or saying they’re too nervous to work the Nov. 3 election.


Shortages could lengthen in-person voting lines or slow a massive absentee ballot counting effort, but officials say there’s no cause for panic because local and state officials have spent weeks recruiting reserve workers to prepare for a second wave.

With many elderly or otherwise experienced poll workers already opting out, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office recruited more than 30,000 general election workers through its Democracy MVP program, said spokesperson Tracy Wimmer.

Many of those recruits have already been assigned, but the state is building what it hopes will be a 1,500-person emergency reserve pool of workers who could be deployed to local communities on Election Day “for reasons exactly like this,” Wimmer told Bridge Michigan. 

The concern comes as coronavirus cases have risen 41 percent nationwide in the past two weeks, and tripled since Oct. 1 in Michigan to nearly 2,400 cases per day on average from 854.

National groups are urging clerks to continue recruiting to guard against no-shows or last-minute cancellations because of the pandemic.

“The best path is recruiting and training one extra worker for every two poll workers needed,” Quentin Palfrey, chairperson of the nonprofit Voter Protection Corps., said this week.

“Waiting until the last minute to contact backup poll workers could result in deficiencies, leading to long lines – which present a COVID risk – and disenfranchised citizens,” he said. “There is a simple fix to avoid this result: contact and train a sizable pool of backup poll workers now.”

Officials say that’s happening in many parts of Michigan, where poll workers must be trained before the election and each precinct must have an equal number of inspectors from the Republican and Democratic parties on hand at all times. 

Benson’s office is predicting that roughly 5 million Michiganders will cast ballots this year, and 3 million of those votes may be absentee ballots, which take longer to process.

In Oakland County, Clerk Lisa Brown said she’s so far had nine workers step down from a consolidated absent counting board because of COVID-19 exposure or related factors. But she hired 33 more workers than she thinks she’ll need for the board, which will process absentee ballots from 16 local communities on Election Day. 

“We still feel very comfortable with where we’re at,” Brown said. “We know that sometimes things happen on Election Day, which is why we [hired extra.] We did it in August too [for the primary,] and it worked out perfectly.”

Some election officials are more worried than others, however. 

In Battle Creek, Calhoun County’s largest city, two inspector chairpersons and a computer operator recently tested positive for COVID, according to Clerk Victoria Houser, who told Bridge Michigan she’s found replacements for them but is concerned about losing more workers. 

“Everything could change in the next couple days,” Houser said.. “We just don’t really know because the Calhoun County [COVID] numbers continue to go up.”

Houser does not have a reserve pool to tap, she said. 

“Everybody who has applied, I’ve put on my schedule at this point. I’m allowing people to continue to apply, and we’ll put them in where necessary.”

Nearby in Fredonia Township, three election inspectors were recently exposed to COVID and told to stay home because “we didn’t want to take the risk,” said Clerk Cathy Combs. 

But the small town of 1,400 registered voters still has 18 inspectors ready to work next week, which is “probably a record for our township,” she told Bridge. 

Most are new, however, because many of the townships “seasoned” workers “were really elderly and did not want to risk getting the COVID, so they didn’t sign up to work this election,” Combs said. 

In the state’s capital, Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said he has not had any election inspectors contract COVID themselves but said the virus “definitely has caused us to lose several of our workers.”

“We have had some people backing out because of their concerns over COVID, and we just received a call from one of our workers who has co-workers with COVID so will not be working,” Swope said Thursday morning. 

Nonetheless, the city is well positioned to handle late poll worker dropouts because there was a “great outpouring of interest in being election inspectors this year,” said Swope, who chairs the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks. 

“We’re going to have around 600 workers out there,” he said of Lansing. “Many of them will be new, which could be a challenge but we are training them well and making sure they understand their role in making sure that this is a safe and secure and accurate election.”

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