State adjusts poll worker requirements in anticipation of more mail-in votes

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Tennessee Secretary of State shared that the state will not switch to widespread or universal voting by mail, as the sudden shift in voting structure could overwhelm poll workers.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett released a Tennessee Election COVID-19 Contingency Plan for the upcoming August and November elections, providing recommendations for county election commissions and adjusting requirements for poll workers amid the current pandemic.

"We are encouraging counties to evaluate their processes from A to Z to see what adjustments need to be made," Hargett wrote in a letter to state legislators. "For example, we have encouraged counties to evaluate their early voting schedules to make sure they are maximizing opportunities to spread out their turnout across more sites, as well as expanding their hours of operation."

The use of personal protective equipment is also recommended from the state.

Hargett also shared that he expects more Tennesseans to vote by mail in August and November under the current provisions for absentee mail ballots and that counties may need to recruit additional poll workers.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson and now Hargett have all shared that the state will not allow widespread by-mail voting this year. While Lee and Johnson shared that one of their main concerns is fraud or ballot harvesting, Hargett shared his concern that too many mailed-in ballots would overwhelm local election commissions.

He shared that typically 1.5% to 2.5% of Tennessee voters vote by mail, and Kim Wyman — the secretary of state in Washington State, where all residents vote by mail — recently recommended that other states do not make a quick switch to broad or universal by-mail voting.

"(Wyman) told us that it took them five years and a slow progression to achieve their current vote-by-mail status," Hargett wrote. "Just to be clear, our office has always embraced challenges, yet it is my belief and the advice of others that a conversion from 2.5% absentee vote-by-mail to even 10 times that amount is going to be a significant challenge for all of our election officials."

Hargett said that the state will use some CARES Act funds for not only PPE for election staff and poll workers but also to fund additional poll worker positions where needed.

Chad Gray, the election administrator for Williamson County, shared that his team is currently in the process of reaching out to poll workers from previous elections to gauge interest in continuing to work through the end of the year. In 2016, Williamson County had 609 poll workers, and Gray said he is hoping for a similar number this year.

He said the greatest challenge with the upcoming elections is the lack of predictability the pandemic has caused.

"Let's say we rewound all this back to January," Gray said. "If you'd asked me, I'd say, 'Yeah, half of our voters in August will vote early during the early voting period, the rest will vote on election day, and maybe less than 1,000 will vote by mail.' All those facts and figures that we use to try to predict turnout are sort of put to the side at the moment."

Gray shared that the county has already received "a good many" applications for mail-in ballots, which are available to Tennesseans who are 60 or older, out of town, hospitalized, ill, or have accessibility issues. He said that a letter will soon go out to registered Tennessee voters 60 or older, encouraging them to vote by mail for their safety.

In Williamson County, over 47,500 registered voters will be 60 or older by August elections and nearly 48,500 by November elections. The 2016 presidential election brought in more than 108,000 Williamson County voters.

Gray said, during some elections in the past, about half of the total voters have been 60 or older, so he is concerned by the potentiality of overstaffing polling locations with low in-person turnout but continues to plan for usual turnout anyway.

The state has expanded the eligibility requirements for poll workers in an attempt to make staffing a little easier this year. The altered requirements are listed below.

• Federal employees can serve as poll officials. Any federal employee wanting to work should check with their HR department to ensure they are eligible.

• County or municipal government employees can serve as poll officials if they do not work directly under the supervision of an elected official who is on the ballot. AOEs should work with county finance officials to make sure county employees can receive payment for their work.

• The minimum age for poll official is lowered from 17 to 16.

• The election commission can hire poll officials (except for the officer of elections) for only part of Election Day. Now poll officials can work in shifts.

Additionally, poll workers should:

• Be able to read and write in the English language

• Not be a close relative (spouse, parent, sibling, in-law, child, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, nephew, or niece) of a candidate on the ballot or a write-in candidate

• Have strong clerical, problem solving and communication skills

Gray said that the county election commission will use PPE and social distancing during the voting process to protect workers and voters and expects that, in light of the difficulties presented by voting during a pandemic, the county's new voting equipment and voting structure will make the process "more efficient, maybe, than some people think."

"With social distancing involved, it's going to be a little bit of an exercise in patience, but we'll try to get voters through as much as possible," he said.

He added that voters coming to vote in person can help the process by wearing a mask, complying with social distancing procedures and being familiar with the sample ballots.

For more information on upcoming elections, visit williamsonvotes.net and govotetn.com. To read the full qualifications for by-mail absentee voting, visit sos.tn.gov/products/elections/absentee-voting.

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