Want to be a poll worker? Philly says it’s responding to ‘unprecedented’ number of applicants

Poll worker Chuck Kellander interacts with voters through a plexiglass screen at Belmont Hill Elementary School in Bensalem, Bucks County. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Poll worker Chuck Kellander interacts with voters through a plexiglass screen at Belmont Hill Elementary School in Bensalem, Bucks County. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ask us: What do you want to know about voting and the 2020 election?

When the Philadelphia City Commissioners put out the call in August asking young people to work the polls for the Nov. 3 election, 18-year-old Abigail Thomas didn’t think twice.

According to Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for the city, neither did 20,000 other people and it’s taking some time to sort through all of those applications.

Yet the city has continued to encourage people to apply to be poll workers and media coverage of these efforts has left Thomas and others like her confused over why they haven’t heard back from election officials tasked with recruiting 8,500 poll workers.

“People have been reaching out to me: ‘Hey, have you heard anything?’ And I’m like, no, I haven’t heard anything, have you?” said Thomas.

Feeley called the response “unprecedented.” More than 7,200 people have been assigned their polling locations so far, but he couldn’t provide a timeline for when the city would be done assigning the remaining 1,300 workers.

“We’re going as quickly as we can,” said Feeley, urging applicants to be patient.

But even when all 8,500 workers are assigned to polling locations, the thousands of applicants who don’t make the cut shouldn’t expect an email saying their services won’t be required, according to City Commissioner Omar Sabir. He said that’s because he wants to retain some flexibility should a large group of people call out.

“[Applicants] could get an email on Election Day,” said Sabir, adding poll workers are not being picked on a first-come, first-served basis.

The city chooses poll workers based on language skills they can use to help voters whose first language isn’t English, as well as their proximity to the polling location. Sabir said poll workers who live near the polling location are more likely to show up on Election Day.

Still, the lack of communication from the city has been a source of frustration for people like Thomas who said she’s gotten radio silence for months.

After failing to hear back in August, Thomas reapplied in September, assuming she’d made an error in her initial application.

Maria Grina, 33, also reapplied in September after having the same experience.

“If I have any concern, it’s that I hope we’re actually organized as a city and people will actually be there to [work] the polls,” said Grina.

Philadelphia election officials started their major recruiting push this summer, even offering hazard pay to poll workers, to avoid a repeat of the spring primary where a significant portion of poll workers called out because of coronavirus concerns. The average poll worker in Philadelphia is 60 years old and more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.

The shortage led to the consolidation of polling locations and in some cases, longer wait times for those trying to cast their ballots.

The pandemic is one reason Beth Kanofsky, 36, signed up to be a poll worker in July.

“I am concerned that on Nov. 3 there’s going to be reports of not enough polling places being able to open, despite the fact that there were definitely enough volunteers, but there wasn’t enough effort to organize them,” said Kanofsky, 36. “Overall, I’m just concerned about the legitimacy of the election.”

Kanofsky said it’s not a big deal if she’s called on at the last minute — she’s already requested the day off work, but she says that’s not an option for everyone and the lack of updates from the city have led to confusion among applicants.

Grina said a get-out-the-vote nonprofit told her the city already had enough poll workers when she asked if they knew of the delay. At the same time, she and Thomas were still getting calls from organizations in September asking if they’d be interested in applying for the job.

Thomas said she worries this year’s experience could deter people her age from signing up to work the polls in the future.

“They’re being discouraged because they’re not getting any information and they just want to know the plan for Election Day,” she said.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

Which way will Pa. vote?

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal