With counties across U.S. facing poll worker shortages, Harris County aims to be overprepared

A voter shows up to vote at the Moody Park Community Center during the July runoff election in Harris County. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
A voter shows up to vote at the Moody Park Community Center during the July runoff election in Harris County. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)

A voter shows up to vote at the Moody Park Community Center during the July runoff election in Harris County. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)

As election officials across the U.S. face challenges in recruiting poll workers during the coronavirus pandemic, officials in Harris County said they are in good shape to meet local needs.

Speaking at a virtual forum hosted Oct. 8 by Voter Protection Corps—a national group formed to protect voting rights in the U.S.—Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins said the county is on track to have polling locations fully staffed throughout the voting period.

Hollins previously estimated the county would need around 11,000 poll workers to properly staff its more than 120 early voting locations and 800 Election Day locations. Nearly 40,000 county residents have applied to be poll workers so far, including 6,000 high school students, he said. The county is now in the process of filling those 11,000 positions, Hollins said.

"We have been lucky in Harris County that there has been such a strong outpouring of support in the community," Hollins said. "We feel pretty good about where we are in terms of staffing out locations and making sure Harris County voters have as many options as possible for casting their ballots safely."

Despite the influx of applications, Hollins said his office will continue its recruitment efforts up until Election Day.


"While we’re in really good shape, ... the job of recruitment and training doesn’t stop," he said. "We need to be overprepared for this situation [so] that we have backups upon backups upon backups, just in case."

In Texas, poll workers are selected by election judges, who are appointed by each of the major political parties. The county's roll is to screen applications before providing them to the parties to make the decision, Hollins said.

Not having enough poll workers is one of several issues on the radar of voting rights advocates, including the Voter Protection Corps, ahead of the November election. A lack of poll workers could result in the closure of polling locations, which could, in turn, lead to longer lines that disenfranchise voters, VPC Chair Quentin Palfrey said.

Across the U.S., an estimated 900,000 poll workers will be needed to staff roughly 26,000 polling locations, Palfrey said. African American populations, homeless individuals and students are among the groups most likely to vote in person and would be most at risk of being disenfranchised if polling locations had to close, he said.

"One of the things that motivates us ... is to ensure this equity and make sure it’s not African Americans, students and historically disenfranchised groups that are facing obstacles," Palfrey said.

The ongoing effort to recruit poll workers in Harris County takes place in the wake of several decisions made at the state level affecting plans for voting by mail.

In an Oct. 7 decision, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Harris County could not send vote-by-mail applications to all registered voters in the county, arguing that the county did not have legal authority to do so. The county clerk's office initially announced plans to send the applications in late August, but Harris County was sued by Attorney General Ken Paxton shortly after.

On Oct. 1, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also announced that each county in the state would be limited to one location at which residents could drop off mail ballots. Harris County previously planned to collect ballots at 12 locations. Abbott, who has since been sued in both federal and state court by voting rights organizations, defended his order as a way to prevent voter fraud.

Hollins has been vocal with his criticisms about the restrictions on mail voting, which he likened to voter suppression at the Oct. 8 panel discussion. Following Abbott's announcement, Hollins said the county formed partnerships with the ride-sharing service Lyft and the More Than a Vote Foundation to provide discounted rides to seniors and disabled voters to the one remaining mail ballot drop-off location at NRG Arena.

Harris County residents interested in becoming poll workers can learn more at www.harrisvotes.com/electionworkers.
By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.