When she worked her first election last year, Pam Neidig was looking forward to serving as a poll worker for the foreseeable future.
Neidig, a recent retiree, has had a change of heart.
She recently informed Cumberland County election officials that she would not be working the June 2 primary out of deep concerns that doing so would put her at risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.
Neidig said she doesn’t think her polling place allows for compliance of federal and state guidances on social distancing. Her Camp Hill District 3 polling place, the ground floor of the Camp Hill Church of Christ, has no ventilation, a low ceiling and a narrow hallway that serves as the access to enter and leave.
What’s more, Neidig said she only recently learned that voters would not be required to wear face masks to vote. She had agreed in January to work a full day, which is about 14 hours.
Neidig recently gave her notice to the county indicating otherwise.
“The thought of being in that environment for that length of time is scary,” said Neidig, who is 62. “I have gone to the grocery store like every two or three weeks since this whole thing started and really have been careful as to who I am exposing myself to. The thought of undoing all that by just going there and essentially trapping myself in an environment where I have no control over who comes in and how they behave is just very alarming.”
Neidig isn’t alone.
Across the state, hundreds of poll workers have made the same decision, backing out, in some cases, only recently, amid their fears of being exposed to the coronavirus and concerns that election officials are not putting in place rigorous safety protocol to protect poll workers as well as voters.
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The overwhelming majority of poll workers are retirees – older adults – and as such, among the most vulnerable demographic to the coronavirus. The viral infection is particularly lethal, especially among older individuals: the death rate among people 70 and older is 4.28 percent; and it shoots up to 7.8 percent among people 80 years and above.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 693 new cases Friday, raising the statewide total to 70,735. Deaths related to COVID-19 stand at 5,464, including 91 new fatalities reported Friday. About two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities, including nursing homes.
That somber statistic has led legions of poll workers to cancel out on working Tuesday.
“At one point we were down 300 poll workers,” said Mark Walters, spokesman for York County.
The county’s full complement of poll workers is 800. As of Thursday, York County was down 250 poll workers.
Across the state county election officials have had to pivot to adjust to the shrinking ranks of poll workers – even as they consolidate polling places as yet another means to address the impact of coronavirus.
York County, for instance, has designated Memorial Hall at York Fairgrounds site of eight different precincts, including one each for Spring Garden and West Manchester townships.
The 2020 election cycle is poised to be one for the history books, even as the nation’s eyes fix on Pennsylvanian, which is poised to be a pivotal swing state. Many voters have already voted by mail for the first time; others will be voting on new machines for the first time.
For those who will vote in person, personal safety will likely be a significant factor.
The Pennsylvania Department of State is providing counties with masks and face shields for poll workers, along with hand sanitizer, floor marking tape and other supplies for polling places. Some officials have questioned whether ample supplies have been distributed.
Indeed, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar is urging voters going to the polls to adhere to the state and federal guidelines for personal protection against the coronavirus, including the wearing of masks; hand washing before and after voting; bringing their own blue- or black-ink pen and practicing social distancing, which means maintaining at least a six-foot distance from others.
“To our dedicated poll workers and those voters who choose to vote at the polls on Tuesday, your health and safety are our main concern,” Boockvar said. “With everyone’s patience and cooperation, we can have a safe and successful primary election day.”
However, those are only guidelines and not requirements. Voters who turn out to the polls without masks will not be denied entry to vote.
Poll workers say that is disconcerting.
“This is really alarming,” said Neidig, who recently faced a medical emergency, and as a result, more hyper vigilant about taking precautions.
She said she would have liked to have seen Cumberland County take a more aggressive approach to protecting poll workers, including installing plexiglass shields.
“We are not the first state to be conducting a primary,” Neidig said. “What all have we learned and why aren’t they jumping on that?”
Cumberland County, Director of Elections and Voter Registration Bethany Salzarulo said the county will put in place special safety guidelines, including social distancing floor markings and handing out to every voter a personal pen to sign in with the registrars. Voting machines will have been wiped down with disinfectant after each use, although she qualified that with “in most cases.”
Still, one county election judge, who requested anonymity, said the guidelines would still fail to protect the public and poll workers because of the tight quarters of the polling place, which makes social distancing impossible. He added that the precinct’s voting machines have a privacy shroud that represents a potential risk for coronavirus spreading.
Walters said York County is advising its poll workers to refrain from engaging with voters who are not wearing masks.
“Those are CDC and state regulations that have been in place for weeks,” he said. “We encourage voters to wear masks but if they don’t, then we are telling poll workers not to make heads or tails of it. Inevitably someone is going to make a comment at some polling place in Pennsylvania. They are going to say ‘don’t tread on my civil liberties’ … For that reason we are telling poll workers to just conduct the election.”
The county is providing plexiglass sneeze guards to protect poll workers, along with personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer.
“My hope is that the primary does not create widespread resentment or contention that an election could amid such desperate and confusing circumstances,” Walters said. “I have confidence that natural order will follow. I think the county is ready.”
Some counties report little change in the ranks of poll workers.
Berks County, for instance, reports having enough workers to staff the county’s 252 polling places for the primary.
“I am very happy. We have plenty of poll workers,” said Deborah Olivieri, director of elections for Berks County.
The county was down 38 polling places at one point as churches and social clubs asked not to be used, and polling places that had been at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities had to be moved.
Eventually, Berks County managed to maintain the same number of polling places – 252 – it had previously.
The Santander Arena in Reading will host four polling places. Some schools, which are closed due to the pandemic, agreed to house polling places.
“We had a lot of cooperation from our schools,” Olivieri said.
Neidig, who would have served as a machine operator on Tuesday, said she worries about her fellow poll workers, the majority of whom are advanced in their years.
“I feel bad,” she said. “Given everything that I ‘ve seen that the county has not done and the state has not done to try to put best practices in place and make it a safe experience for everybody…shame on them for not doing it right.”
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