Squabble over poll workers erupts in Greenbrier County

Greenbrier County teachers line up to enter the courthouse to cast their vote early in Lewisburg in 2018. The Greenbrier County Teachers Association organized the early voting event and around 30 teachers participated. (file photo by Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald)

LEWISBURG — A squabble over securing poll workers for the Nov. 3 general election broke out recently in Greenbrier County.

Procedures for gathering enough workers to staff polling places on Election Day vary from county to county in West Virginia. In Greenbrier, prior to the election, the county clerk prepares lists of people who worked at the last election in each district. She then forwards lists containing the names of Republicans to the Republican Executive Committee and the lists of Democrats’ names to the Democratic Executive Committee.

The committees review the lists, contact the people so named to confirm their intention to serve as poll workers, and return the lists with the appropriate notations to the county clerk.

But largely because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the initial lists this year were shorter to begin with, and fewer of the usual poll workers agreed to work at the Nov. 3 election when contacted by an executive committee member. That left county officials scrambling to fill the gaps, and finger-pointing over the poll worker shortage ensued.

County Clerk Robin Loudermilk notified county commissioners at their Tuesday morning meeting that while one of the executive committees had returned a fully confirmed roster, with the addition of names of 13 alternate poll workers, the other committee’s final list was 13 people short and listed no alternates.

Commission President Lowell Rose indicated that the short list came from the Democratic Executive Committee. He asserted that the committee has a “duty” to fill all of the poll worker slots provided for that party.

Each polling place is required to have one Democrat and one Republican poll clerk and one Democrat and one Republican election commissioner, plus at least one additional election commissioner from any party.

Acknowledging in a later telephone interview that the executive committees don’t always fill their poll worker quotas, Loudermilk told The Register-Herald, “This time was way worse than before.”

The Democratic Executive Committee, she said, returned lists that were short 11 workers in one district and six in another, slots that she had since personally filled, some from the original list she had provided to the committee and others from additional contacts.

Loudermilk said she didn’t understand how the committee fell so short of finding poll workers for this election.

The committee’s chairman, Paul Detch, said his group conducted the process the same way it has always been handled.

“Somebody handed us a list, and we reviewed it,” he said when contacted by the newspaper for comment. “We’ve done everything we’re supposed to do. I was surprised we received a short list this year, but a lot of counties had problems (securing poll workers) and had to cut precincts in the primary.”

Detch said he checked with Loudermilk to see if Greenbrier County was experiencing a similar shortfall, only to be assured that all 29 precincts would be open.

He said he understood that several people who worked at the polls during the June 9 primary election had complained about the number of voters not wearing masks.

“People don’t even like to go to stores where so many people aren’t wearing masks,” Detch said, noting poll workers traditionally tend to be older and many have health issues that make them more susceptible to contracting the virus.

“People over 70 are at risk to start with,” he pointed out. “And when they’re working that 14-hour day at a polling place, they can’t turn anyone away from voting for not wearing a mask. So they could be exposed to a very serious illness.”

Loudermilk confirmed that no voter can be turned away from the polls for refusing to wear a mask, even if Gov. Jim Justice’s mandate for indoor mask-wearing is still in force on Election Day. But she said people wearing or bearing campaign material — like carrying a sign or wearing a cap or T-shirt with a political message or candidate’s name — will not be permitted to enter a polling place, even to cast a ballot.

The county clerk said the state is supposed to send her around 1,000 masks to hand to voters if they want one and do not have their own when they arrive at the polls. Likewise, hand sanitizer, gloves and pencils (for use with voting machines and then to be taken home) will be dispensed to voters.

Masking also will be optional for poll workers, according to Loudermilk.

“It’s up to them whether to wear a mask or not,” she said, noting that certain poll workers may have health conditions or other reasons not to wear face coverings.

Kathy Martin, a member of the county’s Democratic Executive Committee, said the lack of mask-wearing — primarily among voters and not poll workers — figured in at least one of the rejections she received when calling potential poll workers from the lists provided by the county clerk.

That person had previously worked the polls and said she wasn’t going to do it at this election because others wouldn’t wear a mask. Still other previous poll workers cited conflicting appointments, health concerns for a loved one — including one woman whose husband was having elective surgery — or simply said, “It’s Covid,” Martin said.

“I’m sorry so many people declined,” she said. “It wasn’t intentional. We just did what we’ve always done. I don’t know what else we could have done.”

Having made calls to potential poll workers on behalf of the committee for around 10 years, Martin said this was the first time the lists provided by the county didn’t have names and phone numbers of alternates for each slot to be filled. She said that meant she had less information to work with, especially since she had volunteered to take on a second list that had previously been handled by a now-deceased committee member. She said she was unfamiliar with the voters in that additional district and, therefore, was unable to secure the necessary alternates when the regulars declined.

Loudermilk said if there are other registered voters in the county who have not yet been contacted but are interested in serving as alternate poll workers — who might be called upon to work at the polls on Election Day — they should call her office (304-647-6602) during business hours.

People who work at the polls in Greenbrier County will be paid either $170, $180 or $190, depending on their position, for the day’s work.

— Email: talvey@register-herald.com

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