As COVID cases shoot up, will the number of Arkansans willing to be poll workers go down?

This question worries election commissioners throughout the state as we creep closer to Election Day 2020.

Right now the Pulaski County Election Commission is wading through 500 poll worker applications. That sounds like a lot. Unfortunately, Pulaski County Director of Elections Bryan Poe suspects it isn’t enough.

The average age of poll workers in Pulaski County during the March primary was 73. Statewide, poll workers’ average age is 75. COVID threats are sidelining plenty of our senior poll workers. That sets us up for a serious shortage in coming months.

“If COVID takes a different turn, we might lose some of the people we have now,” Poe said.

His office accepts poll worker applications year-round, so it’s not too late to apply.

Elsewhere in Arkansas, election planners calculate that a shortage of poll workers will translate into fewer polling sites open on Election Day. Washington County voters can expect some shuffling around, as there simply aren’t enough people to staff all the usual sites. Compounding that challenge is the fact that some sites will get nixed this year because they’re too small to allow for proper social distancing.

States across the country are grappling with a shortage of poll workers this year. Some are coming up with novel solutions to keep polls staffed and functioning. Wisconsin and New Jersey called in the National Guard to work polls during their primaries. In Ohio, some county workers are taking paid leave to man the polls. Tennessee teens age 16 and up can now apply to be poll workers after the Tennessee General Assembly lowered age requirements.

In Arkansas, nobody’s calling in the National Guard just yet. And poll worker requirements aren’t changing. But poll workers can rest assured they’ll have access to plenty of personal protective equipment if they decide to take on the risk.

While voters can’t be turned away from the polls if they don’t wear masks, poll workers can, Poe said. In addition to masks, the county will also provide gloves and face shields for all poll workers. A stockpile of 750 gallons of hand sanitizer and disinfectants stands ready to keep polling sites as clean as possible.

Voters nervous about crowding on Election Day can cast ballots during the two-week early voting period leading up to Nov. 3. And because of COVID, all Arkansans are eligible to vote from home this year by mailing in or hand-delivering an absentee ballot. These options can help alleviate dangerous crowding at the polls on Election Day.

Still, recruiting poll workers in 2020 is a tough job. How do you convince people to take on a 14-hour day for minimum wage? During normal times it’s not as hard as you might expect, Poe said. Plenty of people love helping their neighbors exercise their constitutional right to vote. Some of them are so dedicated that they forego pay and volunteer their hours instead.

Whether you want to volunteer your time or be paid for it, election commissions throughout the state are counting on you. If you’re up for it, click on your home county here to request an application.