As the presidential election approaches, Andover Town Clerk Austin Simko is collecting his must-haves for running a community-wide vote in the midst of a pandemic.
Simko has experience on his side. He successfully pulled off a similar undertaking in June, when Andover had its local election.
On his shopping list? Hand sanitizer, masks, latex gloves and 6,000 pens — one for each voter in town to have their own when casting a ballot.
“I was surprised. In the grand scheme of things, it was only a couple hundred dollars,” Simko said of the cost of stocking up on personal protective equipment ahead of the election.
When the polls open to voters, a new crop of election workers will be handing out those pens and PPE. Simko said Andover is one of several communities across the region looking to younger poll workers to fill staffing gaps caused by older, established workers opting-out due to COVID-19. Andover was in the process of assembling its election staff when the pandemic arrived, Simko said.
“When COVID hit and 80% of our poll workers declined to work our annual town election, we needed to make an even bigger push,’’ he said of the effort to lure younger workers. “We got an influx of new election workers for our June election, so we think we’re in a good place with our staffing for the fall. One of the tools in our toolbox would be looking to younger workers. A lot of the people who made our June election possible were younger.”
According to the United States Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency that provides guidance on how to run elections, more than two-thirds of poll workers across the country are 61 or older, putting them at a higher risk if they are exposed to COVID-19.
In Massachusetts, poll workers typically must be registered voters. Up to two workers per precinct may be 16 or 17 years old, according to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office. This year, if a community is unable to find enough poll workers, it is allowed to hire workers regardless of their voter registration status, Galvin’s office said. In New Hampshire, poll workers cannot be under 17 years old.
North Andover encourages teens to participate in the election process, said Town Clerk Trudy Reid. Election workers in that town are typically appointed by the Board of Selectmen for one year, with terms renewed as schedules and interest permit, Reid said.
“We typically get retirees and older people. Back in June for our town election, we had a wide range of ages,” Reid said of those who helped in last month’s local vote.
“We had college kids who were home from school and had extra time, and workers who had been home because of COVID. Massachusetts General Law allows us to use 16- and 17-year-olds. Teens have the opportunity to be on the payroll or earn volunteer credit.”
In many communities, being a poll worker can pay well.
Haverhill City Clerk Linda Koutoulas pays $195 per day to each of the nearly 150 election workers she hires. Officials in Derry recently approved paying poll workers $15 per hour, with an additional $15 per hour for “hazard” pay due to COVID-19.
“We need to make sure we are well staffed no matter what it takes,” Derry Town Councilor Neil Wetherbee said.
“It’s a universal concern, here, across the state and the country,” Methuen City Clerk Jack Wilson said of staffing the polls. “We’ve been staying in touch with our workers — wardens, precinct workers and clerks — and we are getting a mix of responses. Surprisingly, a good number are ready, able and willing to come back. Others are cautious, limiting the amount of time they are available, or they are not available at all.”
Wilson said prior to the pandemic, he reached out to Northern Essex Community College to see if he could get some young people — including some who speak Spanish. His effort is part of a program to make things easier for Spanish-speaking voters, while also doing some “multi-generational learning.”
He said he had some success with that program in 2018, but that “everything came to a standstill” with the coronavirus crisis.
“I look forward to trying to build that up again,” he said.
The most important thing, he said, “is that everybody is safe and secure in terms of workers and the public coming in to vote.”
“We are doing everything we can to recruit poll workers,” he said.
Kelly Moss, 36, of Salem, New Hampshire, is a poll worker willing to take a chance and lend a helping hand for the presidential election. Moss said she decided to be a poll worker this year because she wants to help ensure a fair election. She said she sees politicians like President Trump questioning the integrity of elections and decided she could make an impact at a local level by witnessing ballots being cast.
“The most important thing in a democracy is that we trust our elections ...,” she said. “At each individual town, each individual polling place, we have people who can say, ‘I was, was there and I know it was done well.’”
In New Hampshire, poll worker jobs tend to draw older people. Moss hopes her decision to become a poll worker encourages other younger people to do the same.
“If we don’t have another generation coming up to take the reigns, we won’t be able to keep it,” Moss said. “Like I tell my kids, if they don’t take care of their toys, they will break. Same with democracy — if we don’t take care of it, it will break.”
With the country facing the unique challenge of the pandemic, Moss wants to help on voting day, despite the risk.
“I have potential medical issues that could increase my risk if I were to catch (COVID-19),’’ she said. “I had thought about backing out, but there are things in life worth taking a risk for and democracy is one of those things — to cast your ballot and make sure ballots are cast correctly.”
Staff Writers Julie Huss, Bill Kirk, Madeline Hughes and Jill Harmacinski contributed to this story.