A lack of workers willing to run polling sites as Texas continues to report record coronavirus infections is forcing election officials in two major counties to scale back plans for the July 14 primary runoff elections.
Citing a drop-off spurred by fear of the virus, Bexar County, the state’s fourth largest, is expected to close at least eight of its planned 226 voting locations for next Tuesday, according to County Judge Nelson Wolff.
In Tarrant County, the third largest, election officials learned Thursday that the local Republican and Democratic parties had agreed to shutter two of 173 sites planned for election day voting after the parties were unable to find election judges to run the polling places.
Although poll workers are generally being provided with protective gear, Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to not require voters to wear masks when they show up at polling locations is driving some poll workers away, Wolff said.
“There is protection for them in terms of what they try to do, but anybody can walk in without a mask,” Wolff said Wednesday evening during his daily coronavirus-related briefing. “The governor did not cover elections, and so they don’t want to work. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them.”
Early voting, which requires far fewer polling sites, is already underway in the runoffs.
Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate for Texans living in counties with more than 20 active coronavirus cases but exempted people voting in the primary runoff elections.
"We don’t want to deny somebody the ability to go vote simply because they don’t have a mask," Abbott said last week, citing a constitutional necessity to exempt voters from the order.
An ongoing debate over how to conduct fair and safe elections during the pandemic has mostly focused on Democrats’ unsuccessful efforts to expand voting by mail while the coronavirus remains a threat to voters. But voting rights advocates have also called on state and local election officials to better prepare for in-person voting to avoid disenfranchising voters because of electoral challenges that could be exacerbated by the pandemic.
The runoff elections to finalize party ballots are generally a low-turnout affair, and many local election officials are using the contest as a test run for the pitched November general election, which is expected to strain the state’s voting systems with record turnout. Preparations for the runoffs included a poll worker census by counties as officials in Texas worked to avoid the electoral maladies that have disrupted voting in other states. Poll workers tend to be older and thus at higher risk for complications from the coronavirus.
In Bexar County — home to San Antonio — election administrator Jacque Callanen said previously she had seen few workers drop from the county’s workforce when she ran through her list of regulars to confirm they were willing to work the election. But she was preparing to draft county workers into those posts as cases in the area began to skyrocket, raising concerns about whether workers would stick it out through an extended early voting period and election day when the county was slated to open up more polling places.
“We think we’ve covered as many bases as possible to keep both the election staff and the voters safe,” Callanen said before the early voting began last month. She did not respond to a request for comment regarding Wolff’s announcement about the polling place closures.
Soon after the governor’s mask exemption came down, Tarrant County election judge Dianne Kuykendall said three of the six poll workers who were supposed to help her staff the polling site at the Southwest Sub-Courthouse in Fort Worth quit over coronavirus concerns.
Two of them specifically cited the exemption, Kuykendall said.
“Their second reasoning was because they are older and one of them does have diabetes,” she said. The third worker said she was worried about exposing herself because she has asthma.
Even before Abbott ordered masks statewide, the Texas secretary of state’s office had made clear to local officials that voters cannot be required to wear masks to enter a polling place. And voters who show up with symptoms can’t be turned away. The secretary of state’s guidance indicated poll workers can remind people about the curbside voting option or consider whether to move symptomatic voters to the front of the line.
Acknowledging that poll workers who were dropping off were primarily citing fears tied to the pandemic, Tarrant County elections administrator Heider Garcia said those vacancies were still within the “usual rhythm” of drop-offs the county experiences each election.
“Obviously if that volume gets out of what is usual, that would be a problem,” Garcia said. “Right now, it’s within those parameters.”
Aside from the two polling locations that will be closed, election officials have been able to replace poll workers that had bowed out from their duties, but some polling places planned for election day were still short of a “few poll workers,” Garcia said.
Kuykendall is still working to find replacements for Tuesday, but she said her call list included an 85-year-old woman and an older man who hadn’t worked an election in several years.
“I’m just having no luck getting people to work,” she said.
The shortage of poll workers for the much smaller runoffs could prove a harbinger for challenges to come in November, when counties will be attempting to operate an increased number of polling places and will likely face an extended early voting period, which Abbott has previously indicated he will order.
“Voting rights organizations have been calling for investment in accessible and safe election administration since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said H. Drew Galloway, executive director of the MOVE Texas Action Fund. “With early investment, election administrators could have avoided the confusion and disruption last-minute changes will cause voters in an already tumultuous election cycle.”
Early voting for the runoff ends Friday.
Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state's office and MOVE Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.