Monday was hectic and confusing for the courts, governor’s office, and newsrooms across Ohio as the government played tug of war over whether to move forward with Tuesday’s primary election.
Caught in the middle were the state’s poll workers.
Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton ordered all polling locations to close late Monday night on the eve of the primary, after Gov. Mike DeWine’s attempt to postpone the election was shot down in court that evening. With orders to engage in social distancing, polling locations were seen as a vector for the spread of COVID-19, especially for the elderly, who make up most polling location staff.
While some poll workers have praised the governor’s decision, they agreed that the last-minute response led to unnecessary chaos.
“For as thoughtful as the state government — our state government in Ohio — has been with other pieces of this pandemic, they weren’t thoughtful with this, and that is kind of embarrassing. And I think that if they had taken more time and been more thoughtful, it could have been better,” Leah Kofmehl, a voting location manager for a Columbus, Ohio, precinct, said.
Kofmehl, a master’s student in translational pharmacology and a senior clinical research coordinator at Ohio State, has worked at polling locations for seven different elections in Ohio and Pennsylvania. She said she has never seen the kind of confusion and mayhem that Monday brought.
Kofmehl said she started out with a staff of seven working under her at Shady Lane Elementary School, a polling location near Whitehall, Ohio. After schools were canceled statewide, she had her first worker drop out. The man had been working the polls in every election since he retired 15 years ago, but told her that he didn’t feel safe at the polling station during the outbreak.
Not long after, Kofmehl said she was down to two: A high school student and a worker under 60.
“I think you can probably run a location with three people, but that’s a lot,” she said. “So then I was like, ‘OK, this is gonna be different.’”
Kofmehl said she reached out on social media to try to find more help, but her efforts were in vain. Still, as late as Sunday night when she picked up her polling materials, she said the Franklin County Board of Elections was insistent the election would go as planned. The only difference was an added bag of sanitation supplies.
There was no doubt in her mind that she would still go through with her duties, Kofmehl said.
“I was like, ‘Well, if I have to do it, I have to do it,’” she said. “If I have to call my partner at noon to come save me and bring me water and tell me I’m pretty, then I guess that’s what we do.”
Then, Monday morning came. Kofmehl said she could only describe the day as hell.
She spent the day hearing different reports from the governor, the Board of Elections and the news. Early setup that evening was canceled, and Kofmehl said she was ready to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare the polling location, even after the word came from DeWine at around 11 p.m. that the polls would be closed.
“When the judge came back and said, ‘No, you’re doing it,’ I laid out my clothes,” she said.
Kofmehl awoke to her 4:30 a.m. alarm, just as planned. After seeing that polls were still closed, she said she called off her vacation day at work, went back to sleep and got up for business as usual.
The day before the election was similarly troubling for Elena Akers, a fourth-year in international studies and German, who had signed up to work at her polling location just that morning.
This would have been Akers’ first time working at a polling location. She was set to work at Summit on 16th United Methodist Church Tuesday, where she also planned to vote. She said she made the decision after classes were canceled and she heard there were shortages of workers at polling locations.
“That kind of concerned me, to go out and interact with the public,” Akers said. “But I figured if the election was going to happen, we needed volunteers. And better me than someone’s grandparents.”
Akers said she was confident the election would go as planned when she signed up over the phone, but talks of postponement began just hours later. Nevertheless, she read through the training manual.
After hours of articles, emails, texts and social media posts with conflicting messages, Akers said she was sure that whether or not the election happened, few would show up to the polls.
Akers and Kofmehl both said they agreed with the ultimate outcome but were unhappy with the last-minute decision-making.
“I think it would have been voter suppression to have an election today,” she said.
As an experienced poll worker, Kofmehl said she knows firsthand how risky a polling location could be for potential infection.
She said proposed safety measures, such as curbside voting, did not make sense. Franklin County already offers curbside voting, and Kofmehl said every ballot filled out through this method still passes through the hands of four people to get to the voter.
“If we had had [full capacity voting] today, it would have been a freakin’ nightmare,” Kofmehl said. “It would have been germs spreading everywhere. Community spread would be voting spread, basically.”
Despite Monday’s fiasco, both Kofmehl and Akers said they would happily help out for the rescheduled election, whenever that may be.
Instead of spending the day ensuring “free and fair elections in Franklin County,” as Kofmehl put it, the two went about their usual business — at least as much as one can during a pandemic.
Kofmehl went to work. Akers said she spent the day cleaning her room, going for a walk and doing homework.
“Productive things, but not really helping democracy,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that poll workers are volunteers. Poll workers are paid for both their training and the time they spend at polling locations on election day.
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