Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Local voter registrars face unique struggles in coming election cycle — pandemic, reassuring voters on election integrity, poll workers

(WYDaily file photo)
(WYDaily file photo)

As the nation prepares for a unique election season this fall, local registrars in the Historic Triangle are trying to stay on top of mounting changes.

Registrars in some areas of the country are struggling to find enough election officials and poll workers to run the election day proceedings because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Most of our volunteers are in the high risk category and a lot of them have opted not to work,” said Tina Reitzel, Williamsburg’s director of elections

She said typically the registrar has a lot of volunteers during election year.

Several upperclassman from William & Mary have decided to volunteer with the registrar’s office getting “10 or so” requests in the past week. The registrar normally works with the university’s law school and gets a few government majors each year, she said.

“We are always looking for volunteers,” Reitzel said. “We are probably looking for 10-15 more. We haven’t pushed a lot of recruitment but as we get closer to the end of September when we start finalizing our rosters, we might be doing that.”

But in James City County, volunteer election officials have been coming forward just as much as ever before, said Dianna Moorman, the county’s director of elections.

“If things stay on track with how they are now, we should be okay,” Moorman said. “We’re keeping the same number of election officers only because this is our first venture into the world of no excuse absentee voting.”

Moorman said there are about 300 election officials currently but the county hopes for at least 20 more before the elections. 

While the number of volunteers has remained steady, employees with the registrar have been working around the clock to address the growing issue of voter uncertainty this election cycle. 

This year already proved to be unique because of the pandemic but with an increased push for mail-in absentee ballots to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Moorman said some voters have started to express anxiety that their votes will actually be counted.

“I have never seen such doubt and question in any election,” Moorman said. “This is my 34th election and it’s disconcerting.”

The main source of that anxiety is coming from political information regarding the U.S. Postal Service, she said. President Donald Trump announced earlier this month an opposition for election aid for states and emergency bailout funds for the Postal Service in order to restrict how many Americans can vote by mail, according to the Washington Post. Trump has also insinuated that a large number of mail-in votes could create a rigged election.

Whether or not this is true, many voters have started to worry that their ballots won’t count in the coming election which has caused a mass of confusion and extra work for a department that is already stretched thin in James City County.

“The thing we’re running up against is with presidential candidates saying to go and vote in person,” Moorman said. “But it works against the system and puts in people’s mind that the post office isn’t safe, so they submit multiple applications.”

Those multiple applications create an excess of additional paperwork that has to be done by election officials before the voting timeline passes. Moorman said the county has already passed the 10 percent mark for those who have requested absentee ballots and there are still about 2,000 applications that have to be entered by employees.

The registrar has ordered 140 percent ballots based on the amount of locals registered because they expect many people to shift from mail-in to in-person voting.

“The one message I have for voters is to pick a method [of voting] and commit to that method,” she said. “Just turn off the television and focus on what your one vote has the power to do.”

But the already understaffed department has started spending most of the workday on the phone, answering emails and interacting with voters who are concerned about the integrity of the election.

“Most days, we don’t get to put the phone down until 5 p.m. and start our significant work,” she said. “The integrity of the election is still intact, we are extremely by the book and pride ourselves on making sure we are as accurate as possible.”

Moorman said she and employees in the registrar’s office try to calm voters’ nerves by telling them the Postal Service is a reliable service and they can even track their mail-in ballot online if they need to.

Another struggle of this election cycle is the changes coming from the legislature in the last General Assembly. Moorman said the department didn’t receive any word from local legislators about the numerous changes being made until a 17-page packet arrived with the information.

Some of the changes have added to the level and speed of work that need to be done. For example, in the past the department was given 14 days to register voters and go through the application process, but now it has to be done in five days, Moorman said.

In addition, if an application is denied the employees with the registrar’s office now have to notify the individual not only by mail, but also by phone or email which is extremely time consuming.

With those constant changes, Moorman said her staff are often working 12-hour days and weekends to make sure all of the work gets done. 

“This has taught me that I am thankful for our checklists and that we can be very flexible if we need to be,” she said. “We empathize with voters who are trying to learn as much as possible in a world that’s changing everyday.”

In York County, there is less concern about having enough people.

Walt Latham, the county’s general registrar, said York has about 500 people interested in working as poll workers, “and if half of them work, then we’re pretty much set.”

Latham added the office will start reaching out to people this week to double check their numbers. He has already been in contact with leaders at the voting precincts, saying he is optimistic about their numbers.

As for the age of volunteers, Latham said the county is not specifically targeting an age group when recruiting poll workers.

“We’re just taking anyone who’s signed up and who’s interested in working,” he said. “And we’re letting people let us know if they’re concerned or if they don’t want to work. That way we’re not discriminating against age or anything like that.”

York County has a new voting office located at 6614 Mooretown Road in Victory Village. It is open to absentee voting. Latham encourages people to visit the location and vote.

WYDaily multimedia reporters Alexa Doiron, Julia Marsigliano and Gabrielle Rente contributed to this report.

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Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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