The Dangers of Working the Polls in 2020
I attended training today to be a poll inspector for the 2020 general election on Tuesday. Along with 15 or so other local Michiganians, I plodded into our township hall for a three-hour training session delivered by the clerk. I had signed up over a year ago, because I knew this election would be a pivotal one, and Michigan is always a key state for presidential elections. But none of us had any idea exactly how important and distressing this election would be.
In the days of COVID-19 and civil unrest, the entire landscape is changed.
Goneare the days when poll workers simply checked off names and pointed voters to a booth or handed them a ballot…the innocent days when my fellow Brownies and I would serve donuts and coffee to voters in the school gym.
Voting in 2020 is much more complicated in every way.
Who can vote and when. In 2018, Michigan voters turned out in high numbers and demanded expansion of voting rights. As a result, voters can now register right up until the polls close on election day AND no reason is required for voters to choose absentee ballots.
COVID-19 impact on absentee ballots. Due to concerns about the virus, the Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson proactively provided absentee voting applications to all registered voters in the state. Michigan expects a 300% increase in absentee ballots. In my small burgh, it’s expected that 75% of the votes cast will be by absentee ballot.
COVID-19 impact on voting processes. In addition to regular tasks, poll workers in 2020 are responsible for sanitizing pens, booth areas, and secrecy sleeves, in addition to enforcing social distancing among voters. Poll workers are required to wear masks and encouraged to also wear face shields.
In Michigan, voters are NOT required to wear masks. Requiring masks would be considered a condition and would, therefore, be too restrictive. Poll workers can encourage mask usage, but will not be able to turn any voters away if they choose not to wear a mask. This means that poll workers and fellow voters may be exposed to virus by non-mask-wearing citizens.
In addition, “challengers,” designated party representatives who are allowed to observe voters as they arrive and present challenges to any they believe may not meet requirements based on age, citizenship, or residence will be allowed to stand behind poll workers at a distance of less than the recommended six feet. Again, poll workers are put at risk.
But the risk of COVID infection pales in comparison to the potential risk of citizens showing up wielding guns.
Here in Michigan, activity has increased among militia groups, white supremacist organizations, and domestic terrorists. The FBI infiltrated and foiled a well-publicized plot by domestic terrorists to kidnap and murder Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Governor Whitmer is believed to have been targeted because she imposed strict “Stay Home, Stay Safe” orders early in the pandemic — orders that were later credited with saving many lives — and because President Trump has frequently criticized, mocked, and attacked the Michigan governor.
In the first presidential debate (September 29, 2020), President Trump called on his “people” to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.” Many, including militia groups, heard this as a call for militia and other groups to show up at polls to watch voter activity — and serve as a menacing presence to voters.
To head off potential violence or intimidation at the polls, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a ban on firearms at polling places on October 16.
On October 29, that ban was rejected by the Michigan Court of Appeals.
So, where does that leave poll workers? What do they do if militia groups or solo gun-wielders arrive at polling places?
As of October 31 — three days before the election — no one has any answers. It took three direct questions and 10 minutes of hemming and hawing for our township clerk to say that he doesn’t know what poll workers should do if people arrive at voting precincts with guns.
An estimated 29 percent of Michigan adults owned a gun in October 2013, according to a study in the July 2015 edition of Injury Prevention Journal. Since 2013, handgun sales have “soared,” according to an article in MLive in 2019.
Michigan is one of 31 states that allows open carry without a special permit. Some of those currently ban the open carry of firearms at voting sites. But, at the moment, Michigan does not have an enforceable ban.
The possibility of armed voters arriving and making their presence known would not be unprecedented. On April 30, 2020, hundreds of protesters (many of them armed with long guns) entered the Michigan Capital building to protest the governor’s COVID response. A once-unthinkable scene played out as legislators weathered the presence of weapons while in session.
With court cases active, it’s possible that more will be known on Monday, November 2 — the day before election day. The clerk in our community has promised to provide give a summary of court decisions before the polls open on Tuesday.
Given the encouragement of armed poll watchers by President Trump and unclear court decisions, anything seems possible — in Michigan and all across the country.
As a poll worker fully committed to ensuring fair and open voting for all qualified, registered citizens, I am both hopeful and concerned about this year’s elections.
It seems a far cry from the duty once performed uneventfully by senior citizens served donuts by Brownies….
Originally published at https://tina-l-smith.medium.com on November 1, 2020.