We just witnessed another election meltdown, this time in Georgia.
Election officials and advocates have been warning us this would happen for months, but seeing is believing, and our social media feeds remain full of stories about hours-long lines, broken voting machines, voters crying in frustration outside polling places, and many would-be voters packing up and leaving.
What happened in Georgia on Tuesday is a reminder that in many places, we’re not ready for November. This became clearer to me last week when I volunteered as a poll worker for the Washington, DC, primary. Even after 20 years of helping people get to the polls, nothing could have prepared me for the challenge of working at an election site during a pandemic—and nothing could have better convinced me we have a lot of work to do before November.
While 91,000 District residents requested mail ballots, 33,000 people still voted in-person. Despite a high-profile public campaign to vote by mail, the reality is that people don’t change the way they vote lightly. Still others never received their requested ballots or had problems they needed to resolve in-person.
What I witnessed underscored steps we need to take everywhere to make our general election safe and successful.
I reported to my voting center at 2 p.m. along with three other volunteers. Three of us were assigned line management, which meant making sure no more than 10 people were in the voting center at the same time.
When people arrived at the front door, we directed them to the back of the line and gave them an estimated wait time. Voters kept a physical distance of six feet from one another, which made the lines wind around the block. Thankfully we were blessed with a beautiful 66 degree day last week. Many voters in Wisconsin and Georgia who faced similar problems had to endure rain. The weather may be even less forgiving in many places in November.
Once voters got inside, the center was immaculate. Workers regularly sanitized surfaces, machines were spaced well apart, and the Board of Elections set up plexiglass dividers between voters and workers. Officials even thought to put “I Voted” stickers in individual baggies to hand to people as they left. Everything inside ran smoothly.
But I had a very different experience outside helping with curbside voting for disabled people and senior citizens, who are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The curbside station allowed people to vote while seated in folding chairs or from their cars. But being on a narrow sidewalk in a dense urban area meant we didn’t have enough room to keep six feet of space between chairs. We also didn’t have sanitizing wipes for clipboards, envelope sealers, and pens. Even if we’d had adequate space and equipment, we didn’t have enough people on hand meet the demand. At one point there were only two individuals, me and another election official, trying to manage an ever-growing number of seniors waiting to vote.
And although we all wore masks, we couldn’t keep physical distance from all voters. At one point I had to lean in very close to read a senior citizen’s ballot to her, because she was hard of hearing and didn’t have her glasses.
When my shift ended, new volunteers had taken over line management, but there weren’t enough to take over my slot, so I stayed another two hours. By the time I left, the wait time was longer than three hours.
We can do better in the fall.
First, voters who want to vote in the healthiest possible way should vote by mail or vote early where they can. But we also need to allow eligible voters to vote in-person on election day. People deserve to vote in whichever way best accommodates their schedule, and their health and safety concerns. That means we still need to invest in polling locations and poll workers to make lines shorter and reduce people’s exposure to the elements and to each other.
Second, recruiting election workers will be critical for ensuring safety at polling locations. Our polling place could have easily used a dozen additional volunteers to help things run smoothly and safely. But election officials have a hard time recruiting workers in a normal election year, let alone during a pandemic. More than 900,000 people served as poll workers in 2016, but more than half of them were over 60 and are less likely to volunteer again this year. Individuals, universities, companies and public agencies should be thinking about how they can pitch in now.
Finally, we all need a plan for November. Most states had a very short turn-around time between the start of the pandemic and their primaries, but we thankfully have a window to get the general election right. That’s why we need governments to plan ahead now. And it’s why we should all try to vote by mail and vote early if we can, to help reduce strain on our election systems on Election Day.
My husband and I were fortunate to get our mail ballots and mail them back in before the deadline with no issue. If we start preparing now, hopefully all Americans, however they choose to vote, will have as smooth a voting experience as we did. We can take steps to run safe and healthy elections, just as we can connect voters with the information they need to cast their ballots however they choose. Now, for the sake of democracy, let’s get to it.
Jessica Barba Brown is a senior advisor for We Can Vote, a coalition of public health experts, civic engagement groups, and businesses promoting safe, secure and successful elections in 2020.