U.S. officials recruit a "whole new generation of poll workers" for Election Day during pandemic

Poll workers wanted for Election Day
Poll workers wanted for Election Day 03:29

A frantic effort is underway to recruit a new generation of poll workers as older workers are stepping back due to COVID-19 concerns. Experts tell CBS News that likely 250,000 to 300,000 new poll workers are needed nationwide, assuming 40% of previous poll workers will not be there.

"I've shed many a tear… it's the people, I miss the people," poll worker Bea Sherrill, who will sit out working the 2020 election, told CBS News' Major Garrett.

Sherrill spent more than a decade working elections in Newton, North Carolina. She said she spoke consulted her doctor amid concerns over her age and underlying health conditions making her vulnerable to the coronavirus this cycle. 

"When I raised the question with him, his face immediately said no," she said.

Her story is occurring to Americans across the country. According to a 2018 study, 58% of poll workers are 61 or older, putting many in an age group susceptible to the virus. 

Election officials across the country, like Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, are racing to recruit enough people to staff voting precincts amid the pandemic. 

"The bare minimum that we need is 37,000, just to open the polls on Election Day," LaRose said. "We wanted to have that 50% extra as a reserve force in case there's a resurgence in the virus, or folks choose not to show up on November 3, so really what our target is 55,000."

The shortage has forced them to take on creative recruiting tactics — like allowing 17-year-old high school seniors to serve as poll workers, encouraging businesses to give employees the day off and incentivizing charitable organizations to pitch in. 

"One of the silver linings to this whole pandemic experience, as it relates to election administration, is this will be the year that we recruited that whole new generation of poll workers," LaRose said.

Even former President Barack Obama made a national appeal to Americans this week, partnering with NBA superstars and warning that "democracy doesn't work if just a few people do it."

Among those who heard the call is Abby Lublin, a first time poll worker in Durham, North Carolina. 

"If we can't staff the polls, it's too easy of an excuse to close them," she said. "So I don't want to give any excuse for voter suppression."

Lublin has been taking training classes online in preparation for working at her Election Day site at a local elementary school. In most places, poll workers must work in the same county they live in, adding population distribution issues to the task of recruitment. 

"It's invisible work," Lublin said. "And I'm doing it because I can. I am incredibly lucky, incredibly privileged that I can do this and I think it's a time where we figure out what our capacity is and do whatever we can."