Fear of COVID-19 had Burnet County scrambling to come up with enough poll workers for the Democratic primary runoff July 14. While that election has been covered with three workers at two early voting locations and four workers at each of the two July 14 polling sites, November is expected to be an even bigger problem, which Burnet County Elections Administrator Doug Ferguson is now tackling.
“We are absolutely anticipating problems with recruiting for November,” Ferguson said. “The virus doesn’t seem to be in any way tapering off. We have talked to a few people already, and I think it’s going to be very hard to fill all of those positions.”
Burnet County requires at least four people for each of its 20 polling locations: a judge, an alternate judge, and two clerks. Four or five of the busiest locations will need two additional workers each. In total, that’s about 88-90 people who will need to be trained and scheduled before early voting begins October 19.
Poll workers are paid $10 to $12 an hour depending on the position. Shifts are 12 hours but can be shortened with enough recruits. Protections against COVID-19 will be taken seriously, Ferguson assured.
“We are going to protect (poll workers) and protect voters,” he said.
Screens will be installed on the tables to separate poll workers from voters. Gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, and alcohol spray and wipes also will be available. Machines will be wiped down after each voter. Masks will be available for voters who want one — Ferguson hopes.
“We are probably going to have some masks we can give voters, but right now, those supplies are hard to get,” Ferguson said. “I don’t see them becoming any easier. That’s going to be a lot of supplies we will need for November.”
He did add that while masks will be encouraged at the polling locations, they will not be mandated. Voting sites are exempt under Gov. Greg Abbott’s face covering mandate.
“We can’t force voters to wear masks because it deals with their constitutional rights,” Ferguson said.
He does expect voting by absentee ballot to at least double in Burnet County for the November election, despite the desire of people to vote in person.
“(Voting in person) is a very patriotic thing to do,” he said. “It’s what a lot of people fought and even died for — the right to vote — and they like to be there to do it in person.”
Ferguson hopes that same sense of patriotism will inspire younger people to apply for poll worker jobs for this presidential election.
“If they love their country, it’s a good way to show that love,” he said. “And we really need the younger generation because of the technology changes (in voting).”
High school students ages 16 and older can apply as long as they have a teacher sponsor them by writing a letter of recommendation, something Ferguson plans to encourage this year.
“I would love to see that, I really would,” Ferguson said. “They certainly understand the technology, and the ones who would want to do the work are really good at it.”
It would also foster a new generation of civic-minded community leaders, he said.
The biggest fear in not having enough poll workers is the prospect of long lines of people waiting to vote, which could turn potential voters away, suppressing turnout.
“We have to run an election anyway, even if we don’t have enough people,” he said. “I’m not sure what we would do in that case. I’m sure the (Texas) Secretary of State would get involved with a big push of public service announcements.”
Anyone interested in becoming a poll worker can apply online at burnetcountytexas.org.
To request an absentee ballot to vote by mail, taking some of the pressure off of voting locations, visit the Burnet County website. Print out an “Application for a Ballot by Mail,” fill it out, and return it (by mail or in person) at least 11 days before the election in which you want to vote. You will then be sent a mail-in ballot with a new deadline for returning it by mail or in person.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated there would be 20 polling locations open on the runoff election day of July 14. There will be two: the Burnet County Extension Office auditorium, 607 N. Vandeveer in Burnet, and the County Courthouse South Annex, 810 Steve Hawkins Parkway in Marble Falls.