Tennessee Secretary of State: Election administrators must be “relentless” in recruiting poll workers

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An aging cadre of workers and a need for more staff to cope with absentee ballots has Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett beating the drum for heavy recruitment of poll workers this year.

(WJHL) – A perfect storm is brewing as Tennessee’s county election administrators prep for the fall cycle: an aging cadre of poll workers, the specter of COVID-19 and a higher-than-normal workload thanks to an expected surge in mail-in ballots.

It was enough to have Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett beating the drum Monday for what he called “relentless” recruiting on the eve of National Poll Worker Recruitment Day.

“They need to be reaching out to their civic organizations, reaching out to high school and college students, reaching out to major employers in the area,” Hargett said of Tennessee’s 95 election administrators. “We would rather have access to too many workers than not enough.”

Succession planning is always important in the poll worker world, Hargett said. Typical workers are in their 60s and 70s and while he said the work is important and rewarding, “I think I want to work the polls” isn’t a top of mind thought for most people.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

To that end, the state legislature passed a law this year allowing 16-year-olds and also public sector workers — provided their direct supervisor isn’t on the ballot — to be poll workers.

“During this election when some people may choose not to work, and also (since) we need more people who could help us count the ballots, we need more poll workers at the actual election commission site — we need to broaden the pool of people who are eligible to work elections in Tennessee.”

Sullivan County Elections Administrator Jason Booher said the change — which he and colleagues pushed for — provides an important additional tool.

“We’ve had some success with younger workers,” Booher said. Previously, though, the minimum age was 17, and often young workers would serve during a spring primary but be off to college or otherwise unable to help in the fall.

Booher expects 16-year-olds to be just as capable as their slightly older counterparts following the mandatory, paid two- to four-hour training.

“It’s amazing to see the work ethic from those that do volunteer to work elections,” Booher said.

“It’s not just your everyday citizen that’s willing to work a 14-hour day, especially during COVID.”

What does the job entail?

Poll workers help at each county precinct, checking in voters and confirming their eligibility as well as helping them at voting machines.

They’re also needed during the two weeks of early voting, and as Booher and Hargett both said, more than normal will be reviewing mail-in ballots at election commission headquarters on election day.

Hargett said the August primary experience showed that election commissions and their temporary staff were able to provide a safe experience on site. All were masked and gloved, many wore gowns and efforts were made to reduce or eliminate common touch points.

“I went to about 40 counties during early voting and all I heard was praise for the great work that election officials put into making sure that voting was clean, safe and secure,” Hargett said.

Booher said he is fortunate in Sullivan County, where about 240 people are needed to work the election cycle, because quite a few people have expressed an interest. He said a handful of regulars sat out the August primary citing pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk if they were to contract COVID.

This photo links to an application to become a poll worker in Tennessee.

Booher said he hoped people would respond to the statewide “Be a Patriot, Become a Poll Official” campaign and buy into Hargett’s claim that “it’s a great way to engage civically and get paid at the same time.”

That’s because despite his current confidence in workforce, Booher knows his main body of workers isn’t getting any younger.

“The youth are all exceptional — and by youth in this case I mean anybody under 50,” Booher said. He added that he’d like to see a continued infusion of new, younger blood.

“Because we obviously need to continue to hold elections in this country and that requires people who are willing to serve the greater public.”

Booher had a final strong suggestion if not a plea for voters: If your address isn’t updated with your local election commission, use the early voting option. Those sites are equipped to handle the work that will go into insuring your ballot is official and not put in “provisional” status — which is what would happen if you voted on election day.

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