Anne Arundel County elections officials plan to consolidate polling places for the 2020 general election as hundreds of veteran election judges — particularly older ones — back out because of coronavirus fears.
The number of polling places open for the start of early voting Oct. 22 has yet to be finalized as the number of judges willing to work fluctuates daily, county elections director Joe Torre said. At one point last week, he was short about 1,200 of the 2,800 election judges as many of those previously served declined out of fear of the pandemic.
Preliminary plans would impact roughly 89,000 county voters — 22% of registered voters — forcing them to travel slightly farther from home to vote in-person. Any resident whose home precinct isn’t open will be notified where to vote, Torre said.
Finding judges, what elections officials call the hardest job during any election, is now more difficult because of the virus, and they are desperate for residents to apply for the paid positions.
“I’ve been at this office for 13 years, it’s the most difficult (part),” Torre said. “With the pandemic, now it’s worse. People don’t want to work ... It’s a death sentence.”
The average age of an election judge in Anne Arundel County is 62 years old — putting many of them at particularly high risk for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The disease has higher mortality rates in older people.
It’s unlikely all the drop-outs can be replaced, but Torre said his staff is trying. In the past, local election officials have not had much luck recruiting teenagers and younger residents.
Election judges fall into three categories and are paid depending on their role. There are chief judges paid $225 a day to supervise the precinct. Provisional judges help provisional voters and others having issues at the polls. Voting operations judges check in voters, hand out ballots and work voting booths. The latter two are paid $165 a day.
Judges typically work election day, as well as the early voting week preceding it. All judges are also paid $25 for a three-hour training and $25 for a set-up period.
There’s no deadline, and if residents decide to apply at the last minute, they could be approved and attend an emergency training session. But the sooner residents apply, the easier it is for the county board of elections to know how many precincts they have open and how many they will have to consolidate.
Judges will be provided with masks, face shields, gloves.
Political candidates, people working on political campaigns as a chairman, campaign manager or treasurer, and elected officials, including state or county central committees, are not eligible to serve as election judges.
Turn out and long lines
Of the roughly 400,000 registered voters in Anne Arundel County, Torre predicts that more than 80% will cast a vote in November.
The average local turnout rate usually hovers around 70%, but given the national political tension, Torre said he’s been expecting an increase this year since even before the pandemic took hold.
“There are going to be lines. Listen, before the pandemic, all elections officials in the state of Maryland knew there was going to be a large turnout,” Torre said. “There are going to be people who don’t like our president and want to get him out and people who love him.”
Pandemic-related school closures mean that the county board can potentially use high school auditoriums and cafeterias for voting, where they could accommodate socially distant lines in hallways.
If not enough voters decide to vote by mail, and not enough residents decide to serve as election judges, consolidation of polling precincts could lead to even longer lines, he said.
After long lines at few polling stations plagued Maryland’s June 2 primary election, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered an in-person election in November. He and local leaders are encouraging voters to opt for absentee ballots, which can be requested up until a week before the election.
Voters can fill out an application available on the state board of election website, mails it in and then gets a ballot in return. It must be received within 10 days of Election Day on Nov. 3.
Torre asked residents to not wait.
“Smart people will say I’m going to fill this out, and I’m going to vote from home,” Torre said. “But if they don’t fill out the application as soon as they get it, and I get inundated, I may not be able to process them all.”