The Texas primary runoff election on July 14 was largely seen as a “test run” for running an election during a pandemic among election officials and advocates. There were many good preparations and practices for safe in-person voting. But, the election also revealed cracks that, if not fixed, will lead to much larger health risks in November. The largest area for concern was adequate staffing of polling locations.

58 percent of poll workers are older individuals, putting them at higher risk. This presented a new set of challenges to staff polling locations in July and will continue to challenge election officials in November. In the report from the TexPIRG education fund: 

  • 46 percent of surveyed counties were struggling to recruit poll workers or worried about having enough workers for the the July primary runoff.

  • In a follow up survey, 6 of 15 counties reported higher than normal rates of no-show and dropouts, which they attributed to coronavirus concerns.

    • Bexar and Tarrant Counties closed polling locations because of poll worker shortages.

    • Midland County had two locations function without their preferred number of poll workers.

Poll workers are a critical component for keeping polling locations open. Without adequate numbers of election workers, polling locations will be forced to close suddenly, resulting in confusion and longer wait times. With a high voter turnout expected in November, counties must find new ways to recruit poll workers to avoid the issues seen in July.  

Healthy young people play a crucial role in filling these positions commonly filled by at-risk individuals. Youth political engagement has risen significantly in recent years as young people take to the streets and polling locations. Working as a poll worker is an opportunity not only to fulfill their own civic duty to vote, but also ensure that everyone else can vote in-person as safely as possible. 

Likewise, elections administrators must find ways to reach these populations by targeting colleges, high schools, and educators. Information must be easily accessible for them to fully understand the role and responsibilities of a poll worker. Dallas, Harris and Travis Counties are shining examples. They include clear descriptions of worker responsibilities, time commitments, training, and application on their websites. However, most counties were not that thorough; 36 percent of counties studied did not provide any information about becoming a poll worker on their websites and 68 percent did not describe the training process.

Counties should focus their efforts on attracting younger poll workers by expanding their digital efforts. This includes thorough, accessible information about election workers and training on their website. The application should be easy to fill out online. Counties should also partner with nonprofits, civic organizations and high schools through the Student Election Clerk Program to broaden their outreach through digital communication with their followers and membership. Additionally, state and local officials can include poll worker recruitment graphics and information on their social media and communications, increasing the reach of information.

Another key component to recruiting poll workers is making sure that there is a safe environment for them to work in. Even with precautions in place, some poll workers reported feeling unsafe in July. 

  • In Collin County, two Democratic poll workers quit after reporting that some of the Republican poll workers at their sites were not wearing masks.

  • El Paso County sent home two poll workers who refused to wear masks.

  • Midland, Parker and Randall counties reported that they had at least one complaint about poll workers or Ballot Board members not wearing masks.

Counties must ensure that all polling locations follow sanitization and social distancing guidelines. Providing PPE to poll workers and requiring them to wear masks will create a safer environment for poll workers and voters.

Poll workers are vital to the protection of our democracy. In these vulnerable times, it is more important than ever that everyone has the ability to vote safely and securely. By recruiting more poll workers than usual and by targeting younger populations, counties can ensure that they will be fully staffed throughout the early voting period and on Election Day. Young people will determine the future of our country, beginning at the polls. It is time for them to become poll workers and take on the responsibility of ensuring our elections run efficiently both in November and for years to come.

This post was written by Cat Mouer. She is a student at The University of Texas at Austin and an intern with TexPIRG