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COVID and my Civic Duty: A Poll Worker’s PPE Conundrum

By October 28, 2020January 22nd, 2021No Comments

You’ve seen it mentioned everywhere as a way to help this election: Become a poll worker. But even while wearing personal protective equipment like a mask, balancing the risk of possible COVID infection while working the polls — to fulfill one’s civic duty during this pivotal election is no easy feat. I learned there’s more to consider beyond poll worker PPE.

The Pull of Political Activeness

I’ve never felt so compelled to be as politically active as I have this year. Clearly, I’m not alone with 70.4 million voters already cast by Tuesday evening, more than half the total amount of votes counted in 2016, and exactly a week to go until Election Day.

Part of my reasoning to work the polls for the first time? To help ensure poll locations would stay open, by staffing positions that typically are filled by older people, who are at increased-risk of COVID. But l
et’s be honest, my do-gooder-ness was a teeny bit selfish. Surely getting in the action and working the polls would help ease my election anxieties? I was sure that seeing other well-intentioned Americans swarming to polling sites, eagerly participating in our democracy, would help me sleep at night.

The Conundrum of Potential COVID Exposure

Early voter wearing mask showing need for voter and poll workers PPE

Early voter wearing mask. Image credit: Flickr, edenpictures.

But of course, it’s not only older people who have to weigh the odds of increasing one’s risk of COVID exposure. And the US is now in a third wave of the pandemic.

It was quite the anxiety weigh-in: Do you salve your election stresses by participating in poll-working, or stay home and limit your exposure from your neighbors who might not be cognizant that they are COVID-carriers?

Quite the conundrum. Ultimately, I decided to show up at the South Williamsburg polling center in Brooklyn, NY on the first day of early voting on Saturday, October 24. 1700 voters cast their ballots over six hours, and I’ve been working long shifts since.

Safety for Staffers and Voters: Poll Worker PPE

So how is my ‘stress salve’ working?

At my site, working as an accessibility clerk, I feel like we are doing all that we can to stay safe — save from holding elections outside. Here’s why:

  • All poll workers must wear mask while working.
  • All voters who show up to the polls without masks are offered a disposable, surgical mask and urged to wear it. However, those who refuse a mask cannot be turned away. 
  • Voters are urged to keep six feet away from another unless they reside together, with visual reminders (like stickers indicating distance on the floor) and verbal cues from line staffers.
  • Poll workers regularly monitor the number of people in the polling room to ensure that the maximum occupancy for COVID compliance is not exceeded.
  • Accessibility clerks who ensure the safety of people with disabilities must not touch voters or their aids, unless they are asked by the voter to assist. In this case, the clerk wears gloves when asked to physically assist the voter and must dispose of gloves after use.
  • Sneeze guards accompany each staffed voter station.
  • Hand sanitizer is offered to all, and voters are asked to keep the pens they use.

Voters repeatedly told me that they were comfortable and satisfied with the safety protocols that we practiced, and some even said their experience was better than the norm — which is a compliment that cannot be understated.

By Wednesday, my feet are tired, and my want to interact with other humans outside of this grueling shift work is severely waned. But as sappy as it sounds to say, I will anyway: Seeing the joy of the elderly who are using their voices to vote for the first time, or the couples who high-five as they place their ‘I voted early’ stickers to their shirts, and celebrating these hard-fought victories during a historically calamitous time seems totally worth it.


Even beyond poll worker PPE, so many people are still in need of personal protective equipment.

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Ali Hickerson