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Minnesota election officials worry about shortage of poll workers during COVID-19 pandemic

Election judges tend to be older, which means they tend to be more vulnerable to COVID-19. Many are deciding not to risk working the polls this year.

An election judge wearing personal protective equipment at the early voting center off East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.
An election judge wearing personal protective equipment at the early voting center off East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

If you have some free time on August 11, there’s a good chance your local elections officials could use you.

COVID-19 has prompted some cities and counties to worry about a potential shortage of election judges — the people who work the polls — on primary day.

In lots of precincts, election judges tend to be older, and therefore more vulnerable to COVID-19, than the average Minnesotan. This year, some local governments are seeing longtime judges bow out from poll work due to health concerns.

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What judges do

Election judges’ responsibilities include greeting voters and signing them in, registering new voters, handing out and tracking ballots and distributing “I Voted” stickers, among other duties.

While many Minnesotans are expected — and encouraged — to vote by mail, in-person polling places will still be open in most cases for the primary (some more rural areas have switched to all-mail balloting, and voters should double-check polling places, because some have had to move due to being in senior centers or in small spaces).

Minnesota needs a lot of judges — as many as 30,000 for a typical statewide election. Precincts with more than 500 registered voters are required to have at least four election judges, while those with fewer than 500 registered voters need at least three.

There are also partisan considerations: Under state law, at least two of the judges are required to represent different major political parties (of which Minnesota has four: Republican, the DFL, Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party). No more than half of the judges can be from the same major party.

Judges must undergo two hours of training (offered online), be eligible voters and be able to read, write and speak English, but they are not required to be a resident of the area in which they serve. Student judges can help perform many of the duties of judges if they are 16 or 17.

While the job is temporary, it is paid. How much a person is paid typically depends on experience and the locale: in Minneapolis, for example, judges are paid $17.15 an hour.

This year, polling places are taking extra precautions like sanitizing pens and other equipment. Judges will wear face masks and also be charged with making sure voters follow COVID-19 protocols.

That includes making sure voters know they’re supposed to wear masks. This week, Gov. Tim Walz announced a statewide mask mandate for indoor spaces. People won’t be required to wear a mask to vote per se. According to Risikat Adesaogun, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, if a voter shows up at polling places without a mask, they’ll be asked to put one on. If they don’t have one, they’ll be offered one. If they refuse, they’ll be offered curbside voting, which has long been available to voters. If they refuse to wear a mask or vote curbside, they won’t be prohibited from voting but it will be recorded that they didn’t comply with the masking requirement. While they wouldn’t face an automatic consequence, those records could potentially be used for future enforcement actions — such as fines — related to the mask order.

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Uncertainty about judges

It’s the responsibility of local governments — in some places, the county, in others, the city — to recruit and train election judges.

In Willmar, City Clerk Judy Thompson said longtime election judges have dropped out of poll work this year like flies due to COVID-19 concerns.

“Many of our judges, you know, are elderly, as they are throughout the state” she said. Some have elected not to work due to COVID-19, and it’s been a bit of a struggle to recruit enough judges to replace them this year.

It’s taken some jockeying of schedules, but city elections officials think they now have the 80-or-so judges they need to work the city’s 12 polling places — as long as people don’t back out at the last minute.

Local elections officials do have the authority to appoint emergency election judges, but that’s not ideal because if they haven’t been trained, they have to be trained in by the head judge on Election Day.

“I’m trying to plan for a high turnout, but then with all the extra precautions we have to take, I’m seeing myself having to create new duties for election judges in addition to what we already have,” said Michelle Miller, Bemidji City Clerk.

Miller said recruitment for an election during a pandemic has gone better than she expected — she’s got a handful of judges who won’t be working this year but also a decent number of new applicants.

Some area precincts have gone to go to all mail-in balloting, so some judges who typically staff those precincts are available to go elsewhere.

But she noted a recent uptick in coronavirus cases in Beltrami County, where Bemidji is the county seat — from 0.2 cases per 10,000 people one week to 2.8 cases per 10,000 people the next, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

“It’d be nice to have some extras in case I have someone who can’t come in last-minute,” she said. “I need some alternates.”

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In Rochester, Deputy City Clerk Kelly Geistler says there’s always a contingency plan, which typically involves overstaffing polling places so it’s not a big deal if a judge can’t come, but this year it’s more involved.

“This is significantly more beefed up due to COVID concerns,” she said. “Just having people on the ready. We just really need to do our best to make it possible for every person who wants to vote to vote. That’s our duty as election administrators.”

When it comes to reserves, Geistler and her colleagues are hoping to get a deeper bench this year in case people have been exposed, are quarantined, sick, or decide they don’t feel comfortable being an election judge closer to the primary date.

There’s also a pool of city and county employees who will be readily available to fill in gaps if necessary.

“If a head judge calls me from a polling place and says he’s down two people, I’m just going to pop two employees down there,” she said.

Partisan problems

Chandra Peterson, assistant city administrator in Circle Pines, a suburb north of St. Paul, said she’s had two judges drop out this year. One, she said, was staying away from people in general amid COVID-19, and the other expressed concerns about whether people coming to vote would be wearing masks and taking other precautions.

When people drop out, it’s not just being down a judge that can present challenges for election administrators – it’s also the requirement that some of the judges be from different parties, Peterson said. In some parts of the state, recruiting judges from one side of the political spectrum is easier than recruiting on the other.

In Minneapolis, Election Administrator Tim Schwarz says they’re set on judges, but they can always use more recruits who aren’t Democrats.

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“There is always a need for more people affiliated with parties OTHER than DFL, to help us with party balance at the polls — so, people who affiliate themselves with Republican, Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis, and Legal Marijuana Now parties would be helpful,” he wrote in an email. Minneapolis could also use more judges who are fluent in Hmong.