In a normal election year, labor unions would be kicking their canvassing programs into high gear right about now, sending members door to door to talk with voters. But the coronavirus has made this election anything but normal, and unions are changing their game plans accordingly.
Election officials fear a historic shortage of poll workers due to the pandemic, since such workers tend to be senior citizens at high risk for the coronavirus. So, in a bid to keep voter turnout high, some of the largest unions are recruiting their own members to staff precincts on Nov. 3 and during early voting.
A lack of poll workers can lead to a lack of available polling places ― and voter disenfranchisement. Given that the pandemic has made door-knocking infeasible in so many areas, labor groups are diverting some of that energy and resources to the poll worker cause.
“With COVID, door-to-door has gone by the wayside. So this is how we show up for the moment,” said Michael Podhorzer, who leads political strategy at the AFL-CIO labor federation, which includes 55 unions. “It’s a million-person workforce that kind of has to be replaced. This has to get done.”
The AFL-CIO’s executive council discussed the poll worker issue in June and decided to make it a priority, Podhorzer said. Several of the federation’s member unions ― including UNITE HERE, the United Steelworkers, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ― are contributing to the effort with their own recruiting programs launched this summer.
The goal is to find members who aren’t especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and get them to sign up to work a polling place through their local election office. Working the polls is a nonpartisan duty that requires training and often comes with a stipend. This year it will involve a few wrinkles, like wearing protective equipment, guiding people on social distancing and disinfecting voting machines.
“This is how we show up for the moment.”
AFSCME President Lee Saunders said his union just launched its poll worker recruitment program, with a target of enlisting 1,200 members in a handful of battleground states. The program is new for this election, and reflects how the coronavirus has shifted the union’s political strategy.
“We’ve never had to do it before, but we have to do it now because of the pandemic, and because of the issues the president is raising,” Saunders said, alluding to the way Donald Trump has tried to undermine mail-in voting ahead of the election. “We’re convinced that there’s going to be voter suppression efforts. We just have to be prepared for this. Using our members is a smart thing to do because of their political activism.”
Unions do seem like a natural fit for recruiting poll workers. They have a direct line to their members, many of whom already volunteer for political work through canvassing and phone-banking. The networks unions have built through workers and their family members make for an envious ground game every election year, helping drive turnout typically for Democratic candidates.
This year’s primaries already demonstrated how a shortage of poll workers could lead to disaster, particularly for Black and Latino communities in densely populated areas. The stakes are particularly high for presidential nominee Joe Biden and other Democrats, since obstacles to voting in cities could tip elections in battleground states to Trump and Republicans seeking statewide office. The AFL-CIO and most major unions have endorsed Biden for president.
Wisconsin had a deficit of some 7,000 poll workers on primary day in April, forcing jurisdictions to consolidate precincts and leading to ridiculously long lines. The impact was felt disproportionately in cities like Milwaukee.
Milwaukee normally has around 180 polling places for an election. For this year’s primary, it had just five. The Brennan Center for Justice says such precinct closures would be offset partly by the increase in mail-voting, but turnout would still be depressed, particularly among Black voters.
The dearth of poll workers is understandable. For years, the workforce has been stocked mostly by retirees. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 60% of poll workers in the 2018 election were over 60 year old ― a demographic highly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Surveys have shown local election offices were already having a hard time recruiting poll workers before the coronavirus, and the pandemic has only made the problem worse.
The AFL-CIO and several unions have partnered with a new organization called Power the Polls, a collaboration between businesses and nonprofits that’s recruiting poll workers through digital advertising. The group helps pair potential poll workers with the thousands of different local bodies that oversee elections. Scott Duncombe, Power the Polls’ co-director, said it has already surpassed its original goal of 250,000 sign-ups.
“We’ve never had to do it before, but we have to do it now.”
Duncombe said a shortage of precincts could not only disenfranchise voters but endanger them because of crowding. He thinks unions could play an especially helpful role due to members’ political engagement.
“The real tragedy, like in Milwaukee and Georgia … is you end up with in-person voting that’s even more unsafe,” he said of a poll worker shortage. “It really compounds the level of risk, and we’re trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The American Federation of Teachers said its own president, Randi Weingarten, will be working at a precinct on Election Day. The union’s retirees have a tradition of working the polls, but now AFT is urging current teachers and their family members to take on the task if they are low-risk for COVID-19. Many of its local unions have negotiated Election Day as a holiday in their contracts with school districts, making it easier for them to sign up to be trained and work at a precinct for the day.
AFT said it is focusing its efforts in nine states where it anticipates a greater need, all battlegrounds: Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The United Steelworkers kicked off its recruitment program on Sept. 1 and signed up more than 80 members in a matter of hours, said Roxanne Brown, a union vice president. The Steelworkers are targeting 50 cities and hoping to turn younger members into regular poll workers each election cycle.
“It has been older Americans in this role,” Brown said. “This is also about building the next generation of poll workers.”
Some states have tried to get creative in addressing their worker shortages. Wisconsin and New Jersey activated their National Guards to assist at polling places during the primaries earlier this year, while other jurisdictions may pay government employees to staff precincts on Election Day. Tennessee lowered the required age for poll workers in order to recruit teens and avoid consolidating precincts.
Podhorzer, of the AFL-CIO, said unions are ideally equipped to help staff precincts because of their organizing power.
“I think we’re making a lot of progress,” he said. “You have to find people who are willing to do it. This is one of the things that could really derail the election if there aren’t enough places to vote.”
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