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‘We’ve seen Americans step up’ to overcome poll-worker shortage, says federal election commissioner

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By Chris Matthews

This summer, U.S. election watchers raised the alarm that a looming shortage of poll workers could lead to long voting lines, wait times and a depressed voter turnout, but a surge of volunteers in recent weeks has put jurisdictions “in a way better place than we were a few months ago,” according to Benjamin Hovland, head of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Hovland told MarketWatch that “We’ve seen Americans step up and sign up” to be poll workers in record numbers in many localities across the country, allaying fears that a lack of poll workers would force states to dramatically reduce the number of polling locations.

“We absolutely went from a situation where there was dramatic concern to a situation where officials are feeling better,” he added. “There are some jurisdictions that are still looking for folks but we’ve heard from a lot of other jurisdictions that they’ve got what they need.”

In swing states like Pennsylvania, the surge in volunteers is particularly heartening. ” “Every county is in far better shape than, I think, maybe ever, in the history of elections because of this huge, huge influx of volunteers in the community,” Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told the Philadelphia Inquirer .

Results in Philadelphia in particular will be critical to the outcome of a state that both the Biden and Trump campaigns see as essential to securing victory. Democrat Hillary Clinton secured 84% of the vote there in 2016, and the city composed nearly one-fifth of her entire vote total in Pennsylvania.

Officials there are confident an increase in poll-worker applications will help keep wait times there to a minimum. Kevin Feely, spokesman for the Philadelphia City Commissioners office said that they’ve received 20,000 applications for 8,500 poll worker openings. “We’re filling up much faster than before and that number is unprecedented,” he told MarketWatch.

Another battleground state, Wisconsin, has also seen a swell of volunteers, particularly in its urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison, where officials had to stop accepting applications after 6,000 Wisconsinites stepped forward in a jurisdiction that typically deploys 3,000 poll workers in a presidential election.

To be sure, Wisconsin is also home to rural counties where a shortage of volunteers persist, and the state’s Democratic Governor, Tony Evers said he will deploy the National Guard to make sure those locations have sufficient help, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel .Other swing states, including North Carolina, Michigan are reporting that they have sufficient poll workers, while reports from Ohio reflect a surge in volunteers in many counties.

Comissioner Hovland nevertheless suggested citizens reach out to their local election boards to see if they live in a jurisdiction that still needs volunteers, because needs vary across localities.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how well jurisdictions around the country will handle an unprecedented surge in mail-in votes due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Local election officials are “running two elections: the largest mail-in vote they’ve ever done and an expansive physical voting operation,” Hovland said.

Congress allocated $400 million to localities to expand vote by mail and help equip precincts with the tools and procedures needed to follow CDC guidelines for preventing spread of the virus, but “resource challenges remain,” Hovland said.

For its part, Philadelphia has invested $5 million in machinery to sort mail in ballots and prepare them to be scanned by computers beginning on election day. Said Feely of the Philadelphia City Commissioners office, “We’re confident that we have the resources and the ability to count the mail in ballots as quickly as possible and report results in a timely manner.”

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