Poll workers make adjustments to serve during pandemic

This election will look different for voters and poll workers.

With COVID-19 comes an elevated risk for those over age 60 and those who have pre-exisiting health conditions. It left some veteran poll workers shifting roles to count the county’s thousands of absentee ballots. To fill in the gaps, younger poll workers have stepped up and even taken on unique duties that running an election during a pandemic requires.

As of Friday, more than 8,500 ballots had been returned. Indiana law prohibits processing mail-in ballots before Election Day, so votes can’t be counted until Tuesday.

While more than 11,000 absentee ballots that were mailed out, if returned on time, will need counted on Election Day, 150 poll workers across Johnson County are preparing to help thousands more vote in-person Tuesday.

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Many changes to normal procedures are in place, and masks, wipes and hand sanitizer are ready to go so poll workers and voters are safe as can be this year, said Trena McLaughlin, Johnson County clerk.

The decision about whether to sideline elderly workers was left up to the Johnson County Republican and Democrat party chairs, McLaughlin said.

“If they (elderly poll workers) are comfortable, I have no problem with them working,” she said.

Since each vote center or precinct in the state must be staffed by poll workers from both major parties, local chairs are in charge of recruiting the workforce that the clerk requests. The parties provided a mix of ages and experience levels among this year’s workforce, McLaughlin said.

And since the number of vote centers was reduced to 10 from 22 due to the pandemic, and the election date shifted this year, fewer poll workers were needed overall. But each site still in operation will require more workers than it would during a typical election, she said.

“I asked parties for extra workers per site so they could keep everything sanitized, clean and monitor, (and) if they get any lines, that the six-foot guideline is met,” McLaughlin said.

In the county’s initial plan, 339 workers were requested to staff 22 vote centers. Now, 150 will staff 10 sites Tuesday, she said.

“This election is completely different from any other because of the pandemic. Whereas before we had five or seven (at each site) we have asked for nine or 11,” McLaughlin said.

The extra workers at each site will be in charge of making sure hand sanitizer is readily available, that public areas are sanitized and to ensure voters stay six away from each other while waiting in line to vote, McLaughlin said.

In response to the dramatic uptick in absentee ballots, the number of ballot counters was also doubled this election.

For a typical election, eight to 10 people—composed of four to five representatives from each party—would count a little more than 1,000 ballots, McLaughlin said. This year, 10 from each party for a total of 20 will count the more than 11,000 ballots, she said.

Some poll workers thought twice about working this election given the circumstances, but each was drawn in by their sense of civic duty or a desire for some extra cash.

Connie Dirks, of Greenwood, has been a poll worker for many years. She spent the past six working early voting at the courthouse. The veteran poll worker said the voting process is the same, but everything is done more carefully and with more cleanliness.

“You know, to be honest, there has been little difference other than wiping everything down and being careful that you don’t touch things,” Dirks said.

With so many voters choosing to vote by mail for the primary, early voting lines have been short and social distancing has been easy to accomplish, she said.

“A lot of voters are coming in with gloves, masks, and they are very prepared,” Dirks said. “I’ve had no difficulty as far as people complaining; people have come in small groups, so there have been no long lines.”

Though she falls into the high-risk category, Dirks came back to work because she trusts the procedures McLaughlin has put in place, she said.

“I’m having to trust that we are taking the right precautions and that we are doing the right thing,” Dirks said. “I’m very proud of the fact that this county has done all it has to make this safe.”

Megan Webb, a Greenwood resident and college student, started working elections two cycles ago with encouragement from her mom and a neighbor. She came back this year to get out of the house and interact with people again.

The extra precautions will make the election more smooth so voters can get in and out safely, Webb said.

“I think we have straightened out all the quirks so people will be more free to come in and vote,” she said.

Kayla Lemmon, a Nineveh resident and 2020 Indian Creek High School graduate, first worked the polls for the general election in 2019, and returned because it was a rewarding experience, she said.

In the primary, so far, it has been interesting to hear voters debate the election safety from her birdseye view, Lemmon said.

“You don’t learn about this part (of the election) in school. So it is cool to see. I had no idea you had to do all of this,” she said, gesturing to an iPad containing the electronic poll book, a voting machine and the room in the courthouse basement where absentee ballots are sorted.

For mail-in ballot workers, like Dee Johnson and Stephanie Allender, the work is less public, but is much more complex.

Before the election, the mail team sorts the ballots and matches signatures on applications with submitted applications to prepare for the big count starting at 6 a.m. on Election Day, Allender explained.

For Johnson, this was her first year working with mail-in ballots after many years working the polls.

“As a voter it makes me think it is a balanced, thorough, bipartisan process,” Johnson said. “But it is tedious.”

Both veteran workers wanted a less public job this year, Allender and Johnson said. Since each worker is wearing a mask and the returned ballots are sanitized, they feel safer in these roles.

Both enjoy the community around working elections and come to do their part for democracy.

“It is a weird part of my personality. As a public servant, to me, voting is a civic duty,” said Johnson, a retired postmaster.

Allender started working the elections 15 years ago when her dad was a precinct committeeman and voting records were still kept in a book. What started as a quest for pocket money turned into a joy and tradition, she said.

“I like the process, I like the people,” Allender said. “There are a lot of die-hard voters that you will see year after year. It is kind of neat when they say “Hey, I remember you. You voted me in the election.’ It is nice to be recognized.”

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Here is a look at when and where you can still cast your ballot early:

Johnson County Courthouse, 5 E. Jefferson St., Franklin

Today, 8:30 a.m. to noon