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After Recruitment Hurdles, Poll Workers Face High Pressure

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With only a few weeks until Election Day, volunteers across the country are being trained on how to run the polls that day. But in swing states like Pennsylvania, there may be poll worker shortages in some of the areas that could decide the election. Lucy Perkins of member station WESA in Pittsburgh has more.

LUCY PERKINS, BYLINE: This summer, Pittsburgh resident Jane Hartung heard that the elections division needed help. Poll workers are typically older and thus more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Since she's 31, healthy and has a flexible work schedule, Hartung volunteered to help. She went through training in late September.

JANE HARTUNG: It was a lot of information. Being somebody that was really into school when I was a kid, I, like, you know, brought my pen and was taking down notes - lots and lots of notes.

PERKINS: This is the first general election Pennsylvania will conduct on new equipment that leaves a paper trail, so both newcomers like Hartung and veteran poll workers had to learn how to operate the new machines that count and store ballots. They also learned other important details, like how to make sure someone who voted by mail isn't also trying to vote in person.

HARTUNG: I feel very prepared. I'm going to go over my notes on the Monday before Election Day just to make sure that I have everything, you know, clear and in the front of my mind.

PERKINS: Hartung is one of more than 6,500 people that the county needs to train this fall in order to staff all of its 1,323 polling places. They had to consolidate polling places in the primary because they couldn't find enough people to run them. They plan to reopen almost all of those sites in November. And now, after an aggressive recruitment program, they have more than enough people to do the job.

Rural parts of the state haven't had the same challenges. Thad Hall is elections director for Mercer County, north of Pittsburgh.

THAD HALL: So people will call me up and say, I needed, you know, two people, but I was able to get, you know, two of the people from the PTA or whatever to join me. And so we haven't any recruiting issues at all, really.

PERKINS: But staffing the polls has been much harder in other parts of Pennsylvania, especially Philadelphia. Nakea Hurdle is a city official who handles elections. She says the city typically needs about 8,500 poll workers on election day, and they're still short several thousand.

NAKEA HURDLE: We have never had 100% of our poll workers confirmed - not even without the COVID pandemic. So if we're able, this will be a great thing, I mean, because Philadelphia generally is looking at a 50% vacancy.

PERKINS: But Hurdle hopes this year will be different. The county had more time to prepare than they did before the primary. And she says they've gotten an overwhelming response from people who want to work the polls.

HURDLE: I am feeling very confident that we will do something unprecedented. I'm hoping it's one for the books.

BOB LAROCCA: There's less of a mad scramble, but there's even more of a need for poll workers.

PERKINS: Bob LaRocca is executive director of the Voter Protection Corps, a nonpartisan group working to recruit poll workers in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona and Texas. He says the stakes are particularly high in urban areas like Philly, where a poll worker shortage could mean closing polling places in a high-turnout election.

LAROCCA: And this leads to the disenfranchisement of people of color, many of whom live in urban areas, but also urban populations in general.

PERKINS: But even if officials recruit enough people, LaRocca says there's still cause for concern. If the pandemic gets worse, he worries that volunteers could drop out.

For NPR News, I'm Lucy Perkins in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.