It makes sense, then, that an unusual number of poll workers, who include paid monitors and volunteers, have been canceling their shifts. It’s common for 10 percent of workers to not show up on Election Day, says John Mirkovic, the deputy county clerk for policy in Cook County, Illinois. Yesterday, Cook County was “hovering between 20 and 25” percent, he told me. To make up for that, election officials have asked young, healthy people to work at polling sites—especially students whose classes might have been canceled amid the outbreak. It’s often paid work, and many officials are relaxing training requirements out of sheer necessity, Mirkovic said.
If enough poll workers from one election site call in sick or don’t show up, that polling location could be forced to close. Voters should check their county-elections-board website before heading to the polls, Mirkovic said. A worker shortage could also mean fewer people directing traffic inside polling places and running the voting machines. “If [poll workers] decide not to come, it would be hard to replace them” the day of, says Michael Hanmer, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland. Lines will be longer, he says, and more mistakes will be made, including errors checking people in and eligible voters being turned away.
These problems are likely to get worse as the primary season wears on. “We’re going to see a lot more disease over the next few weeks,” Watson said. “If leaders can consider other methods to vote, as well as postponing these primaries, that is definitely worth considering.” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, for example, recently introduced legislation that would allow all Americans to vote by mail ahead of the general election. And states voting later in the spring will have more flexibility to extend their absentee-voting deadlines and relax their early-voting rules.
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The counterargument to making these changes: Postponing primaries sets a bad precedent. If states are able to delay primary elections easily, a politician or political party might be tempted to try to change the date of a general election. Right now, that’s not possible, because federal law determines when general elections happen, but if someone attempted to move one, “there could be chaos,” Burden said.
The silver lining to all this disruption is that Americans are living out a worst-case election scenario, in real time, before November. States should be better prepared for administering the general election—including new vote-by-mail systems or other absentee options—if there is a resurgence of the virus or some other disastrous event. “States will learn a lot from what happened this winter and spring, and they have time and will have more resources to make alternative planning for the fall,” Burden said.
But for now, the many Americans on their way to the polls need to know that they are taking on certain risks. They will have to decide individually “whether voting is important enough to do that,” Watson said.