Dorothea Townes always loved going to the polls. As a little girl, she’d join her mother in the voting booth to watch her pull the lever and ensure that her voice was heard.
They’d walk out past a group of ladies, smiling from behind a row of tables. It stuck with Townes how welcoming the election judges were as they oversaw a democratic process that Townes had been taught to treasure. “I’ll be back,” she remembers thinking.
Decades later, Townes is a stalwart poll worker who wakes up at 4:15 a.m. each Election Day to prepare her Northeast Baltimore precinct for an influx of people. But this November, on one of the most critical election days in her lifetime, Townes will not be there to oversee it all.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan this month flouted the recommendations of local and state election officials, ordering a regular in-person election with every precinct open. The backlash was swift, from Democrats in particular, with many questioning how it will be possible to safely staff hundreds of polling places during a pandemic in which people are still urged to stay home.
The election judges who operate polling places tend to be older, making them at higher risk for devastating coronavirus complications. In other states, some poll workers have fallen ill.
“I will not do it,” Townes, 56, said.
“Unless you can pull 8,000 more people from thin air, we’re not going to have all the people we need to run the polls on Election Day.”
Before the governor announced his decision, local election officials in June warned Hogan in a letter that it takes about 25,000 judges to run an election in Maryland.
Those local administrators predicted a regular election could fail because of a lack of workers willing to “manage the enormous task of conducting an election during a pandemic.” In Baltimore, election judges are paid about $200 for more than 12 hours of labor. Many are retirees who view the biennial work as a civic responsibility.
Now, these longtime poll workers face the question: Is their role in ensuring a smooth election worth the risk of interacting with hundreds of people indoors?
It was a heart-rending decision for Bob Sauers, 70, a longtime Howard County election judge. He’s done the job for two decades, and sees it as a way to contribute to his community. After Hogan’s announcement, he talked to his wife and his son, who were unequivocal. Don’t do it, they said.
In the end, Sauers couldn’t sign up to return, unable to allay the fear that he might go to the polls and bring the virus home to his family.
Unlike the June primary, when the state mailed all eligible voters ballots and in-person voting was limited to a handful of sites in each county, Hogan ordered election officials this time to send only applications for absentee ballots to voters and to open all precincts on Election Day. If people want to vote by mail, they will have to mail back the application.
Hogan defended his plan Wednesday at a news conference, saying it offers voters flexibility after a primary he said was plagued with problems in getting the correct ballots to voters on time. He strongly encouraged people to vote by mail in the general election.
Local election boards are surveying their usual pool of poll workers to get a sense of who may be willing to work come Nov. 3. Some have responded that it’s too early for them to decide because there’s no way to predict the extent to which COVID-19 will be plaguing Maryland in the fall.
Still, it’s not looking good.
David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, said a poll of local boards found that officials are about 8,000 judges short of what they need. And with coronavirus cases again on the rise in Maryland, people who committed to work are calling to pull out.
“Unless you can pull 8,000 more people from thin air,” he said, “we’re not going to have all the people we need to run the polls on Election Day.”
Howard elections director Guy Mickely said he knows of about 450 election judges who are willing to serve — a little more than a third of what the county needs. He’s hearing, “No,” from the very people he’s grown to depend on over the years.
It’s always hard to recruit judges, even when there’s no pandemic to worry about.
“We are in trouble when it comes to having enough election judges to conduct this election the way it’s been set forth,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any way we make it through the election without consolidating precincts because there’s not going to be enough judges to go around.”
State elections administrator Linda Lamone this week said her agency will need an additional $20 million to carry out Hogan’s plan. About a quarter-million of those dollars will be devoted to recruiting and hiring additional election judges.
Some local officials have raised the idea of targeting younger people, including college students, to sign up. That demographic has historically been challenging to recruit for the job — and it’s difficult to rely heavily on one stream of people to fill so many slots.
In announcing his election decision in early July, Hogan said the state will encourage its employees to help supplement election staffing.
Persuading people to sign up to work the polls is only half the battle. Election judges must spend hours being trained on how to successfully run an election.
John Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state who runs the city’s election judge training program at the University of Baltimore, said he doesn’t know yet how it will be carried out for the general election.
Even if the city trains election judges via videoconferencing, similar to the way many college courses are being taught, Willis said there’s no substitute for hands-on experience with the voting equipment.
Data from the 2016 primary shows that roughly half of all election judges were over the age of 60, and roughly 16% were over 70 years old. Older people are much more likely to die of the coronavirus than younger people.
Willis, who is in his 70s, said he would not “ask any friend of mine, who is my age, to sit there and check in 1,000 people in a day.”
With many of those older people electing to stay home, Willis said, valuable experience in running a polling place will be lost on Election Day.
Sam Novey, 32, plans to work Nov. 3 in what will be his second experience as an election judge. He says he expects there to be safety precautions, like protective gear for all poll workers. The state elections board has told the Hogan administration and legislative leaders that it will need an additional $1.5 million for cleaning, protective supplies and items to promote social distancing. During June’s primary, election workers wore masks and gloves, with many standing behind protective screens.
“I really think it’s important for those of us who have done it before and are not in a high-risk category to step up,” Novey said.
In a nearby North Baltimore precinct, 79-year-old Eleanor Green is grappling with a different choice.
“There’s just no way I can be in that close contact with people for 13 hours, at my age, with my responsibilities,” said Green, who takes care of her young grandson. “I feel terrible about it, but you have to use some common sense sometimes. I don’t understand why on earth we’re having this in-person voting.”
Pamela Bishop, 64, is entrenched in the electoral process. Both a veteran election judge and someone who trains future poll workers, she can still hear her grandmother reminding her that people died to give Black people the right to vote.
But Bishop is also a cancer survivor whose sister died this month from COVID-19. She doesn’t want to take that risk on Election Day.
“I don’t think I want to put myself in that environment,” she said. “Maybe I’ll come back two years from now.”