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Paid election workers train for worst, hope for best during in-person voting in Southern California

Debbie Reaves had settled in for a routine viewing of “The Daily Show” at her Trabuco Canyon home several months ago when she heard host Trevor Noah voice concern about whether there would be enough polling place workers come Election Day.

The fear was that seniors, who historically have often volunteered to work the polls, wouldn’t be comfortable coming out due to the coronavirus pandemic, which poses a greater risk for anyone 65 or older. Combine that with the distrust President Donald Trump and others on the right have sown about mail-in voting, plus expected record-breaking turnout, and the situation appeared ripe for potential voter suppression in the form of long lines to cast in-person ballots.

She’d never been politically active before. But Reaves, who’s 62 and healthy, decided to request for time off from her job as a project manager for a healthcare company and sign up for what she thought would be one day of volunteer work.

“Our voices need to be heard,” Reaves said, “and a safe, convenient voting environment is essential.”

Looking back, Reaves acknowledges she had no idea what she was getting herself into.

Forget tiny designated polling places in someone’s garage or a local church, monitored for a day largely by retired volunteers. In-person voting in Orange County is now a multiday event overseen at large vote centers by some 1,500 paid staffers who go through a thorough vetting process and extensive training.

This cycle, OC Registrar Neal Kelley said that includes additional training on pandemic safety measures and conflict management, such as how to handle people refusing to wear masks or otherwise disrupting the democratic process.

OC and a handful of other California counties had already moved to the vote center model and to professionalize election workers before the March primary. Since the pandemic struck, other Southern California counties have been forced to go that route because they quickly discovered the old model wasn’t going to work this fall.

Still, there are significant differences in how election worker programs are run from one county to the next.

In prior election cycles, Riverside County Registrar Rebecca Spencer said her office would recruit 3,500 people to staff 600 polling places across the county. They’d receive a stipend for one day of work plus another small payment for one three-hour in-person training.

But when they went to start putting that plan together for this cycle, Spencer said they discovered many seniors on their volunteer list weren’t comfortable working a polling place this cycle. Locations that had hosted polling stations in the past also were backing out.

Now Riverside County has hired 600 election workers to staff 130 voter assistance centers that are open for four days, Saturday, Oct. 31 through Election Day. Most of those workers are paid $15 an hour and go through two hours of virtual training. There also is one lead and one assistant lead worker assigned to each vote center.

Those workers have spent 40 hours a week for the past four weeks attending an “election officer academy” that takes them through everything from how to set up the voting equipment to how to guard against COVID-19 to how to de-escalate difficult situations.

Under this model, Spencer said they’ve had no trouble filling all 600 election worker slots, with a waiting list ready to go in case anyone drops out last minute.

San Bernardino County also moved to the vote center model for the same reason, county spokesman David Wert said. After initially having trouble recruiting from the usual pool of volunteers to staff those centers, he said they’re now relying largely on existing county workers who’ve been trained to work elections.

Two San Bernardino County workers tested positive for the coronavirus after a week-long training at the National Orange Show Event Center. But Wert said county health experts don’t believe those workers contracted the virus at the event because organizers had taken precautions such as requiring all of the roughly 400 workers to wear masks and face shields, frequent sanitization and temperature checks each day.

San Bernardino County did virtual trainings whenever possible, Wert said. But he said they needed to do some in-person training to show supervisors how to use new equipment and to do a dress rehearsal for a system that’s being rolled out locally for the first time this cycle.

Wert said they notified everyone who’d been at the training about the two positive cases, encouraging them all to get tested and telling them not to report to work if they had any symptoms. So far, Wert said no other election workers have reported feeling sick.

Orange County didn’t have any trouble with initial recruitment for its 1,500 election workers to staff 168 vote centers, Kelley said. “But as we get closer to the election,” he said, “more people cancel each day. It’s a challenge but we have been keeping up.”

The training process was a bit daunting, and the pandemic and heightened worries of violence did cause some additional concern for Linda Chezar, a Newport Beach resident who’s serving as a lead election worker at a vote center in Orange County. But at 61, Chezar said she doesn’t scare easily. And she didn’t want to let fear hold her back from participating in what she feels is the most important presidential election in her lifetime.

Chezar said seeing the process up close for the first time – with precautions such as computers that aren’t connected to the internet, to prevent any chance of hacking, and completed ballots always monitored by at least two people – has made her more confident in the security of our election systems.

“I’m really proud of what Orange County has done,” she said. “I think they have done everything humanely possible to make it easy to vote, to secure your vote and to minimize any kind of hassle.”

Just to get the OC job, Reaves said she invested four hours of her time. That included a full job application and an hour-long online test, which Reaves equated to a “mini-SAT.” She did a Zoom interview with two people and a Live Scan background check. Then she attended an on-site onboarding in Santa Ana, where she had to sign forms attesting she’d read 200-plus pages of documents and would read a 150-page Vote Center Handbook.

Once they’re hired, Reaves said election workers in Orange County have to commit to 10 days of work. That includes two days of online training, one day of on-site training, one day of set up at the voting center, five days of live voting for up to 13-plus hours and one day of helping tear down the voting center.

Given the pandemic and the commitment now involved, Kelley said OC has seen the average age of its election workers drop substantially. Some younger workers told Reaves they had been out of work due to the pandemic, so they jumped at the chance to work for a week making $19 to $21 an hour, plus some overtime until the last voter clears out on election night.

In the first hour her vote center was open Friday morning, Chezar said they processed 60 ballots without problems.

If anything does go sideways, Chezar said the county provided solid training and has good systems in place for backup. And if all else fails, she said, “I know how to dial 911.”

While Chezar knows everyone is fired up right now, she said she plans to channel her dad, who had strong political beliefs but could have respectful debates with anyone and still remain friends.

“I’m going to try to dial down the rhetoric and the fear, be reassuring and make it more of a celebration of who we are as Americans,” she said.

“We’re not red, we’re not blue – we’re American at voting time.”

Poll workers Debbie Reaves attaches a security tab—one of three—on a piece of voting equipment to ensure the machine is not tampered with. “People don’t know about all the security measures that are in place,” she said while preparing for Friday’s vote center opening at Lake Forest Sports Park on Wednesday, October 28, 2020. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Poll workers prepare the voting center at Lake Forest Sports Park for Friday’s opening on Wednesday, October 28, 2020. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Poll workers prepare the voting center at Lake Forest Sports Park for Friday’s opening on Wednesday, October 28, 2020. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Poll workers prepare the voting center at Lake Forest Sports Park for Friday’s opening on Wednesday, October 28, 2020. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Poll workers prepare the voting center at Lake Forest Sports Park for Friday’s opening on Wednesday, October 28, 2020. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Source: Orange County Register

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