The National Guard can help us avoid an election catastrophe this November

With a poll worker shortage looming, National Guardsmen are ready to step in

A National Guardsman works on election day at a polling location in Madison, Wis., on April 7. States can leverage the National Guard to help mitigate an anticipated poll worker shortage this November, Palmer writes.  (Andy Manis/Getty Images file photo)
A National Guardsman works on election day at a polling location in Madison, Wis., on April 7. States can leverage the National Guard to help mitigate an anticipated poll worker shortage this November, Palmer writes. (Andy Manis/Getty Images file photo)
Posted August 28, 2020 at 1:49pm

As we approach the final two months before Election Day, a major concern on the minds of election observers is the potential huge drop-off in the greatest generation of poll workers. These Americans have long served as the perennial backbone of the voting process for their communities, but a majority are over the age of 60 and at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. The shortage of poll workers resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of polling locations during the primaries, and we could see even longer lines in November. While steps have been taken to make in-person voting safe, recent projections of available poll workers for the general election in many counties have precipitously dropped.  

A shortage of poll workers in November would be nothing short of a domestic emergency. States and localities around the country are currently making herculean efforts to boost recruits. The Election Assistance Commission and election partners are amplifying recruitment efforts with the designation of Sept. 1 as National Poll Worker Recruitment Day. The goal is to inform citizens about the need for election workers and what being a poll worker entails, and to encourage those who are willing to sign up in their communities.

In this emergency, there needs to be an all-hands-on deck response. Thankfully, governors have reinforcements available to them to respond to any drop in election workers: the National Guard. Using hometown soldiers and airmen as election or poll workers is a logical option to ensure a successful 2020 general election. The National Guard has been on the frontlines of state COVID-19 response efforts ranging from assisting food banks to administering tests for the virus. Reflecting on the last five months, where would we be as a nation without the significant efforts of the citizen soldiers of the National Guard? The guard has proved its mettle in supporting past election operations in times of emergencies. Already, more than 30 states plan to use their National Guardsmen to safeguard the 2020 election against malicious threats in cyberspace.

The National Guard has also quietly assisted states and localities this primary season, serving in polling places and election offices. More than 200 members of the Kentucky National Guard helped set up and clean poll locations and assisted with traffic, parking and crowd control during that state’s presidential primary in June. Unarmed, in civilian attire and serving in administrative, nonpartisan support roles similar to poll volunteers, Guard members alleviated a dire situation in Wisconsin where nearly 60 percent of municipalities reported a shortage of volunteers to the tune of 7,000 poll workers statewide leading up to election day in April. While Wisconsin’s primary election was not perfect, the National Guard’s support unquestionably mitigated the lack of human resources necessary for efficient election administration, with more than 2,500 Guardsmen serving as poll workers in the April 7 presidential preference primary and about 160 in the May 12 special congressional election.  

In Nebraska, at least 130 Guardsmen filled multiple roles, serving as poll workers, but also offering poll site sanitation services and helping direct voters to the correct precinct. In New Jersey, nearly 200 Guardsmen were called to duty, and some were activated for nearly 15 days to provide ballot counting support because the need for volunteers extended beyond election day itself.

With just over 60 days to prepare, leveraging the National Guard presents an opportunity for states to respond to the crisis and reduce the potential for catastrophic failure in November. Fewer poll workers equal dramatically fewer polling places. Governors and state election officials need to consult now with local election officials to coordinate and plan for effective ways to train and utilize the National Guard for the anticipated emergency shortfall of poll workers.

By preparing now for the activation and training of these valuable reinforcements, governors can address a looming emergency situation and allow election administrators the additional flexibility to focus on the myriad of other tasks necessary to ensure a smooth voting process for Americans.

Commissioner Donald Palmer is vice chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and a former state election director in Florida and Virginia.