An array of unconventional volunteers prepare to work at in-person voting sites to alleviate the elderly and additional workers susceptible to the coronavirus.
“I am a little concerned, with our Montgomery County COVID-19 numbers increasing, what that means for the elderly population that has given me an ‘OK’ to put them on our calendar to work the full 45 days at the satellite locations ahead of election day,” said Connie Viar, general registrar and director of elections for Montgomery County.
Blacksburg, Virginia, has 1,554 confirmed cases as of Sept. 17 according to Johns Hopkins University. The county holds a 0.30 fatality rate compared to the state’s 2.05%. Virginia Tech has uncovered 777 positive cases according to the Virginia Tech COVID-19 Dashboard.
“Seeing as a majority of poll workers are over a certain age — statistically over 60 plus because a lot of them are retired individuals, I felt particularly obligated to step up and take that alleviation away from them,” said Jimmy Heagerty, a junior majoring in economics and political science at Virginia Tech.
An estimated 58% of U.S. poll workers were between ages 61 and older in the 2018 general election according to the Pew Research Center. Similarly, in the 2016 general election 61 and older composed 56% of total poll workers. Coronavirus has disproportionately affected elderly populations and those with preexisting medical conditions such as diabetes and serious heart complications. Their vulnerability forces them to decide between civil service or health, which has posed difficulty for adequate poll staffing.
“Even in the June Republican primary election, Carroll Williams — the secretary of the electoral board — had issues with staffing enough people at the June election,” Viar said about the most recent election. “People were still fearful and did not know enough about it. We had a lot of people drop out and had the bare minimum of people for that election.”
“We can alleviate the pressure from a lot of 60 plus workers,” said Steven Baca, a junior studying Spanish and business at Virginia Tech.
Viar notes there has been an abundance of people signing up, which has totaled up to 309 volunteers to select from and staff the 25 on-site voting locations, including the central absentee precinct.
“I wanted to try to pull my resources together as much as possible and to recruit, not just myself, but to recruit as many people as I could, to go take that position away from a lot of at-risk individuals,” Heagerty said. He estimates they have recruited 15 young volunteers.
Young volunteers share similar motives to participate in the electoral process while also filling in the gap for eligible volunteers in the time of the coronavirus. Additionally, part of their inspiration to become more involved is to provide more representation of minority communities in elections.
“It is a way for me to represent the Latino race,” Baca said. “I can make people feel more secure if they see a Latino worker there. They will be more encouraged to keep voting, not only just in this presidential election, but in the future. As a Latin person, I wanted to make my other Latin community welcome. If they are able to see me, that can encourage them to keep voting in the future as well.”
Blacksburg is called home to 3,110 Hispanic or Latino-origin individuals which accounts for 3.2% of the population.
In order to become an officer of election, individuals must complete the Officer of Elections Oath of Affirmation and the Response to Appointment. Paperwork signatures must be witnessed by a clerk of the court, notary or a member of either the Electoral Board or registrar’s staff. All forms can be found on Montgomery County’s website.
Montgomery County will be hosting two satellite locations for early in-person voting: the first floor of the County Government Center located in Christiansburg and the New River Valley Mall – recently renamed Uptown Christiansburg – in the Wonder Universe: A Children’s Museum storefront. These satellite locations will be open for voting Sept. 18 to Oct. 31. Montgomery County approved additional locations taking into account the health of both voters and poll workers to minimize the potential spread of the coronavirus.
“We are staffing six people per day until the last two weeks when we are staffing seven people per day. That is the full 45 days,” Viar said about the schedule poll workers will follow.
As the pandemic lingers, democratic duties weigh upon voters and poll workers alike. The need for large voter turn-out similarly demands the need for eligible poll staff. “If we do not have enough poll workers than more polling sites are going to have to close. That is an unnecessary aspect of voter suppression that we do not need atop of all the other factors working to suppress votes across the country,” Heagerty said.
Early in-person voting and absentee voting by-mail are alternative routes to exercising citizens' right to vote. Virginia permits anyone who is a registered voter within the commonwealth to volunteer at the polls, but preferably, registered within the precinct they plan to serve.