COVID-19 forces some poll workers home during Election Day, as others take their place

a sign with an American flag and the word vote
An election judge awaits primary election voters at a quiet polling site at Moorhead City Hall on Aug. 11.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

Rita Chamblin won’t be watching the news Tuesday night. She won’t be thinking about the election at all, actually.

'“I’ll probably put in a Hallmark movie. Something totally nonpolitical,” she said. “When you need to shut off the left brain, you need something strong to get into that right brain. And a Hallmark movie just does it.”

Hallmark movies and left-brain power-down is not Chamblin’s regular election night reality. Typically, her left brain is very much on.

Chamblin is the head election judge for Beltrami County’s Turtle River Township. She’s spent the last few Election Days in the tiny, spare town hall, directing locals to voting booths. It’s how she’s managed her stress, every year, over who would win.

Rita Chamblin is head election judge for Turtle River Township
Rita Chamblin is head election judge for Turtle River Township in Beltrami County. It’s a mail-in voting township this year, so Chamblin won’t have much to do on Election Day. She says she’ll watch a Hallmark movie instead.
John Enger | MPR News

But not this year. This year, thanks to concerns about community spread of the coronavirus, Turtle River is a vote-by-mail township — so Chamblin will be without her usual coping mechanism.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having an impact on almost every aspect of this year’s election — including who is staffing Minnesota’s polling places. Across the state, younger people are filling in for older election workers who are staying home because of the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

The Minnesota Secretary of State’s office said it doesn’t know exactly how drastic this year’s shift from older to younger poll workers has been, because it doesn’t track that data. But a spokesperson said they suspect the shift is significant.

Early this spring, when most people still thought the COVID-19 pandemic would be wrapping up in a few weeks, Chamblin worried over what a Turtle River Township election might look like if COVID-19 was still present in the fall. She worried about the safety of voters, and about the township’s election judges, many of whom are older, and more vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus.

“At 66, I was the youngest,” Chamblin said. “So everyone else was significantly older. A few of my election judges were in their 80s.”

Chamblin had heard of some localities that were moving their polling places to larger buildings, and recruiting much younger poll workers, who might be less susceptible to complications from COVID-19.

In Duluth, for example, about half of the city’s 200 or so election judges are staying home this year. But elections administrator Chelsea Helmer said more than enough people stepped up to replace them, many of them young people.

Chamblin said she thinks she could have gotten younger workers to staff her area’s polls on Election Day, but rural Turtle River Township just doesn’t have a large enough building to move to. Social distancing would have been a nightmare.

“We did some quick math and determined that we could get maybe three people at a time, voting,” she said.

So she and her elections team went to the county, and worked through the process to switch the township to a mail-in system, like many smaller locales across Minnesota.

Chamblin won’t have any votes to tally as an election judge, and she won’t be making any late-night ballot deliveries to the county auditor.

But the call to civic responsibility was too strong for her to just do nothing. She’s on Beltrami County’s ballot board now, examining contested ballots. It’s an important job, which actually pays a bit — but it’s safer, from a COVID-19 perspective, and she’s done by 4:30 each day. Plenty of time for a Hallmark movie. Maybe two.

Helping the democratic process

Kaitlyn Dexter will definitely not be watching a Hallmark movie on Election Day this year.

Instead, she’ll be at Duluth City Hall, opening absentee ballots, taking phone calls and answering voter questions. Pretty heady stuff for someone who, at 20, wasn’t old enough to vote in the last presidential election.

But Dexter is a big believer in the idea that democracy is not a spectator sport. And she knew that many regular election workers would be sitting out this year because of COVID-19.

“I really wanted to do what I could to make sure that I was helping the democratic process,” she said.

Dexter is a junior political science major at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Classes are being held virtually this fall, so she stayed home in Duluth, and landed an internship with the city. She traces her interest in politics to grade school, when she tagged along with her dad to vote.

Kaitlyn Dexter is interning for the city of Duluth
Kaitlyn Dexter, 20, is interning for the city of Duluth. On Election Day she'll be opening absentee ballots, taking phone calls and answering voter questions. She says democracy "is not a spectator sport."
Photo courtesy of Chelsea Helmer, elections administrator for the city of Duluth

“They usually had polling booths for little kids. So you could like go in and mark a fake ballot. And then you would get a sticker,” she said. She loved those “I Voted” stickers when she was little.

Now, she finds herself not only encouraging her friends and family to vote, but also answering their questions about how mail-in voting works — and assuring them of the integrity of the election.

“I've been able to see how many checks we have in place,” she said. “You have to request your absentee ballot through our system. You have to have your name, date of birth. And in Minnesota, we do the Social Security or driver's license number.” Then all that information gets checked again when the ballot comes back.

While Dexter has been busy working and studying, she did find time to fill out her own absentee ballot.

Voting in her first presidential election wasn't quite as special as she had anticipated — after all, she's been looking at ballots hundreds of times during her internship.

Still, she said, she’s glad that her voice will be heard, and she’s happy that her work means she's ensuring that lots of others' voices will be heard, too.

Have questions leading up to Election Day? #AskMPRNews. We want to hear your stories, too. #TellMPRNews what is motivating you to get out and vote this year.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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