Tampa Bay polling places are well staffed as seniors return, supervisors say

Coronavirus concerns kept some seniors from working the August primary, but many are poised to return in November.
Poll worker Gloria Nelson, 67, of St. Petersburg, provides candidate Rene Flowers with hand sanitizer before she enters the polling station at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church on Aug. 18, in St. Petersburg.
Poll worker Gloria Nelson, 67, of St. Petersburg, provides candidate Rene Flowers with hand sanitizer before she enters the polling station at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church on Aug. 18, in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sept. 17, 2020

Since the early 1980s, Marie-Therese Waddell has been a constant for Spanish-speaking voters at the Ballast Point Park polling place in Tampa.

Born in Morocco, the 76-year-old speaks six languages and enjoys answering voters' questions in their native languages. She doesn’t need the money — she just enjoys the work.

Waddell isn’t nervous about catching the coronavirus while working the polls, she said. During the primary election in August, her coworkers wore masks and shields, sanitized frequently and used their own pens to stay safe. Because her husband worried that she would bring the virus home, she showered and changed out of her patriotic mask and dress as soon as she got finished.

But she plans to be back for the general election.

Some Florida counties ran short of poll workers for this year’s primary election. Like Waddell, poll workers tend to be older, putting them in a category that’s at higher risk for serious complications from the coronavirus. That prompted some to sit out the primary.

But local county election supervisors say that plenty of their regular senior poll workers are returning for Election Day and the early-voting sessions leading up to it. Some counties have added younger workers, as well. And all say they expect to have enough workers for the general election.

A study by The Pew Research Center found that about 58 percent of U.S. poll workers in the 2018 general election were 61 and older. Poll workers check-in voters, update voter information, set up the polling place and hand out “I voted” stickers, among other tasks.

Hernando County was among those that had trouble finding poll workers for the primary, the Tampa Bay Times reported in July, forcing it to consolidate locations.

But the county is expanding again and has moved two previously closed locations into a school gymnasium to allow more room for voters to socially distance, according to Shirley Anderson, supervisor of elections.

“We’ve had five or six orientations, just introductions for people to come in, and there have been plenty of seniors in those classes," she said. “We are set with workers at the moment."

Seniors work these jobs both to serve their country and to earn extra money, said Brian Corley, supervisor of elections for Pasco County. Their pay varies by position, Corley said, and the office’s 2020 stipend of $160 to $220 covers their training time and work on Election Day.

“It’s important to remember, our average poll worker age is 66 years old,” Corley said. “It may have gone down just a little bit, but not a lot. We are very blessed to have long-tenured poll workers who come back every election cycle."

The office had enough poll workers for the primary, Corley said. And the office is staffed with the 1,200 poll workers it needs to run the general election.

Some of Corley’s regulars were unsure about returning for the fall, he said.

“But in speaking with them, I was able to relay the safety concerns we have taken since March,” he said. “Quite honestly, they were very appreciative, and I expected nothing less.”

“I don’t want to jinx this, but right now we’re in a good spot,” he said.

Pinellas County is set for the general election, said elections administrator Tim Closterman.

“We’ve been very fortunate that a lot of people are interested, and we haven’t had a lot of dropouts,” Closterman said.

Hillsborough County was fully staffed for the primary election, according to Gerri Kramer, chief communications officer for the supervisor of elections. And the office has filled the more than 2,000 positions it needs to run the general Election Day smoothly.

“We’ve had a couple of poll workers who said they are going to sit it out for a while,” said Craig Latimer, supervisor of elections for Hillsborough. “But the other side of that is that we literally have about twice as many people signed up to be poll workers as we actually need.”

The average age of poll workers was 66 for the primary and is 59 for the general election, he said.

“The average age went down because there have been some targeted recruitment efforts from us, as well as our community partners and national groups, to encourage younger people to sign up to work the polls,” Kramer wrote.

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