With Pandemic Poll Worker Shortage Looming, Merkley Introduces Legislation to Give States Flexibility to Send Poll Workers to Areas of Greatest Need

WASHINGTON, D.C. –  Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley today announced that he will be introducing legislation, the Poll Worker Recruitment Act of 2020, to address the urgent shortage of poll workers for the November 2020 general election. Today’s announcement coincides with National Poll Worker Recruitment Day.

Merkley’s legislation is co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the U.S., the coronavirus crisis has made it much more challenging to recruit poll workers at a time when in-person voting options are already limited. Many of the volunteers who normally help staff polling stations are seniors who are at high risk of COVID-19 complications and have been urged by public health professionals to stay home.

As election boards across the country work to resolve this poll worker shortage, Merkley’s legislation would make it easier for them to send recruits to where they are most needed by removing requirements that poll workers be registered to vote in the same county where they are volunteering. Poll workers would still need to be registered in the same state.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to holding a safe and fair election in November,” said Merkley. “No right is more sacred than our right to vote, and we must do everything in our power to protect voting rights this year. Every American voter needs to be given the chance to cast their vote in a safe and accessible way. That means that in addition to giving every voter a chance to vote by mail, we need as many poll workers as possible to avoid long lines, unreasonable waits, and dangerous crowding. Let’s get every poll worker America has available to where they are most needed and will be most effective.”

Pennsylvania implemented this change in requirements during its 2020 primary election. Merkley’s proposal would make this change national, ensuring that all states have equal opportunity to maximize coverage by poll workers.

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the U.S., poll worker shortages have become a persistent problem throughout the 2020 primary election season. Washington, D.C. reported a loss of 1,700 election workers during its primary voting period. Kentucky reduced its in-person voting locations to a single polling place in each county for its primary because of poll worker shortages. And alarming statistics from other states show that this is likely to be a significant problem for the general election: In Anchorage, Alaska, 95% of past poll workers declined to sign up again this year, while in Maryland, the state announced last month that it is short nearly 14,000 election workers.

“As we have seen in primary elections across the United States, the challenge of recruiting and retaining poll workers during COVID-19 has had a suppressive effect on in-person voting, which communities of color disproportionately rely on. The Voter Protection Corps applauds Senator Merkley for recognizing the critical need to boost poll worker recruiting this Fall so that all voters who want or need to vote in person can do so safely,” said Voter Protection Corps Executive Director Bob LaRocca. “By providing local and county jurisdictions greater flexibility to recruit poll workers from across a state, this legislation works to address the massive demand for in-person election workers in November.”

“I fully support this common-sense approach to recruiting poll workers. With two major Universities in my county, having the ability to recruit younger poll workers who aren’t permanent residents would help immensely,” said Amelia Powers Gardner, Utah County Clerk/Auditor. “Removing barriers to recruitment helps elections officials and our local communities while giving young people the opportunity to serve.”