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New Faces Boost Ranks Of Poll Workers In St. Louis Region

St. Louis voting stickers are seen on a table at Central Baptist Church in St. Louis on March 10, 2020.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
The duties of poll workers on Election Day include setting up equipment, checking in voters and yes, handing out "I voted" stickers. In 2020, there will be hundreds of new poll workers at precincts across the St. Louis region.

Every election requires hundreds, if not thousands, of poll workers to run smoothly.

They set up equipment, check in voters, handle disputes and answer questions. It’s a bipartisan group of often older individuals, many of whom have been doing the job for years.

But the 2020 presidential election, being held as coronavirus cases surge in the bistate area and across the country, has pushed hundreds of people to sign up as poll workers.

“I've thought about it for years, and there was a call to action this year with COVID,” said Jennifer Patterson, an executive at Booksource, which distributes books to classrooms. “They were predicting that they were going to have a reduced number of their returning poll workers. So I just felt pretty passionate about stepping in and helping how I can.”

Patterson will be assigned to a precinct in St. Louis. Her biggest worry is potential exposure to the coronavirus. She plans to wear an N-95 mask and sanitize her hands as often as possible.

Patterson was prepared to use a vacation day to serve as a poll worker, but a change in Booksource policy means she won’t have to. For the first time, the company is closing at noon on Election Day so all employees have a chance to vote. Patterson and other poll workers will get a full day off.

“I was willing to take my own time to be able to help support the polls,” Patterson said. “But I do think it did encourage us to get a lot more people within our organization to be able to help support.”

Kelsey Johnston isn’t as lucky. Her employer, Washington University, does not offer paid time off for being a poll worker. While Johnston has plenty of vacation days to use, she plans to push the university to change the policy.

“If I get called for jury duty, I get an excused absence,” she said. “Why should poll working be different? I feel like they’re both kind of integral parts of our democracy.”

Johnston was a poll worker in August and reached out to her circle of friends afterward with a simple pitch.

“I know from interacting with you that you all have a stake in the election and recognize what’s important in our democracy,” she told them. “Take a day off.”

Johnston estimates that she got 15 people to sign up. Elections officials in St. Louis say more than half of the poll workers they have hired for Tuesday are first-timers. In St. Louis and Jefferson counties, and St. Clair County, Illinois, about a third of the poll workers are newcomers.

The 2020 election also gave rise to some new positions. Tristan Wood, a high school history teacher, will spend Tuesday working as a safety coordinator at a precinct in St. Louis County, just as he did in August. Safety coordinators are in charge of making sure that voters are wearing masks and keeping six feet apart in line, and sanitizing the voting equipment.

“I’ve voted since 2006, and every time I went to the polls, there were election workers there who made things run smoothly,” Wood said. “And in my recollection, most of them are older retirees. During the pandemic, especially, I think I have a responsibility to help out where I can.

Those election workers have carried our democracy for so long.”

Wood said he was drawn to the safety coordinator role because of his background as a teacher, and because he wanted to set an example to his students.

“I’m trying to give them more examples of seeing adults in their lives, engaging in civil discourse and civic responsibility,” he said.

Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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