COLUMBIA — With his plastic face shield, rubber gloves and clipboard, Richard Schultz easily could have been mistaken for a public health official working at a coronavirus testing site.
But the middle-aged Columbia resident was taking part in an altogether different type of screening on a recent Thursday: Helping absentee voters fill out their ballots curbside for the Nov. 3 election in a downtown parking lot.
A presidential election carried out in the teeth of a pandemic means one of the most significant pieces of America's voting apparatus — poll workers — will be relied upon like never before, and most of the 640,000 who staffed precincts nationwide in 2018 were at least 61 years old — 58 percent in all, according to a U.S. Election Assistance Commission report to Congress.
On Election Day, roughly 2,100 poll workers will be on call or deployed to voting sites across Richland County — a significant increase from the 1,500 or so usually needed, county elections chief Alexandria Stephens said.
The uptick is due to expected long lines, social distancing requirements and public health conditions that may keep those older, reliable volunteers home in 2020.
“I do see that there are more younger people wanting to be involved in the process. We have a lot of them out doing curbside (voting assistance),” Stephens said, although she couldn’t provide a breakdown of poll workers by age group.
Given the elderly’s susceptibility to the contagion, elections officials say bringing healthier people into the system is imperative.
“Young folks seem to be very, very motivated about being involved this year,” said Scott Duncombe, leader of a national nonprofit called Power the Polls. Its mission is to recruit 250,000 volunteers at lower risk of contracting COVID-19 into precincts across the country. The organization launched over the summer in response to poll worker shortages in several states.
“We’ve heard from young people who have served as poll workers about how that experience can change the vibe and atmosphere at polling places,” Duncombe said.
Poll workers are paid $135 for their time on Election Day, while precinct managers receive $195.
During June's primary and runoff elections, 9,980 people were trained and worked at polling locations across South Carolina, state Elections Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.
And in April, the agency for the first time launched an online registration portal for volunteers. More than 20,000 applications came in.
"That's one of the positives that's come out of this year," Whitmire said. "We've never gone to this extent recruiting, but now it's in place and I think it's going to be pay dividends for the future. Once a person does it one time, there's a certain fraction who get hooked and will come back."
State elections officials hope to eventually create metrics that will allow the tracking of poll workers by age.
Schultz said he’s eager to see newer, younger faces assisting voters as well. Nationwide, just 13 percent of poll workers in 2018 were between the ages of 18 and 40, the Election Assistance Commission reported.
Younger poll workers also can help bridge technological gaps with older voters, or may break down language barriers that can complicate the process for some, Duncombe said.
Mary Brack, Lexington County’s elections chief, said 800 poll workers are ready to go on Election Day, and more than 25,000 mail-in ballots have already been sent out.
Brack said many of her volunteers are familiar faces from previous elections, though a few younger people have registered.
“We’re pretty well stocked. We haven’t seen much of an increase (in first-time volunteers),” she said.
A recent state Supreme Court ruling could help deepen the pool. Justices said Bar-certified attorneys can gain six hours of continuing education credits by volunteering at polling locations.
Since 1982, members of the South Carolina Bar have been required to complete 14 hours of training annually. The point is to make sure Palmetto State attorneys are versed in changes within the legal field.
S.C. Supreme Court justice and University of South Carolina law professor John Cannon Few tweeted that incentivizing attorney participation in the elections process fits into the continuing education philosophy.
“Fair elections are critical for the preservation of democracy and pursuit of a just society!” Few wrote. “Lawyers — as citizens — who practice public service, and understand its role in promoting justice, are better able to meet the broad mission of the Bar and achieve the specific goals of our justice system!”
Allowing for a bundle of those credits to be completed through poll work is a novel approach that also brings the benefit of learning more about elections law, said Bar president Roy Laney, partner at a Devine Street firm in Columbia.
"Lawyers in our state are public service-minded, dedicated to serving their communities and well-equipped to help with this need on Election Day,” Laney said in a statement to The Post and Courier. “Offering continuing legal education credit for this service provides extra encouragement for our lawyers to serve. We look forward to the lawyers of South Carolina serving our state.”
Deyaska Spencer is among them. The Columbia-based personal injury attorney spent an entire day last week handing out bottled water and snacks to voters at a Richland County satellite precinct, and will also work the polls on Nov. 3.
“Attorneys have a responsibility to public service work, and seeing that elections are handled fairly and safely. That’s important to this court and it’s important to me,” Spencer, 37, said. “But I think we’ve got to give young people their credit. Many are plugged into social media and they’re tuned in.”
South Carolina’s Grand Strand region has made changes to its elections structure as well, and officials there got an idea of how things could look on Election Day during the June 9 statewide primaries.
During the time the county’s election director Sandy Martin would have normally done in-person trainings, she saw veteran poll workers afraid to volunteer. Precinct locations backed out for a variety of reasons.
The county was forced to combine or relocate a whole list of its 124 precincts. Coupled with the loss of some experienced poll workers, and problems quickly popped up on primary day including incorrect ballots being handed to a handful of voters.
For the 2020 election, Horry County is working to make Election Day run smoother. Martin said some of the veteran poll workers who didn’t volunteer in June are returning, and solicitor's office employees are assisting election officials next month.
So far, only one precinct will be combined compared to an initial 30 alterations just a few months earlier in June. According to records obtained by The Post and Courier, Horry County’s statehouse delegation was only asked for the Garden City #4 precinct to be moved to Seaside Elementary School.
In addition, Horry County set up three additional absentee voting locations in some of the most populated areas to help alleviate issues as Election Day inches closer.
South Carolina’s largest county is also taking steps to ensure a smooth voting experience for all.
“I am in the election business, and I want people to participate,” Greenville County elections director Conway Belangia told community leaders last month.
The county which represents almost one out of every 10 registered voter in the state says 332,000 people are eligible to vote there, and turnout could near 80 percent.
Belangia said his budget for poll worker hiring is maxed out, and many of them will be first-timers due to a coronavirus-related decline in participation among his seasoned volunteers.
Grant money is helping Charleston County election officials meet their needs. Last month, the county received almost $700,000 from the Center for Tech and Civil Life, a Chicago-based voting advocacy group that will allow for a $120,000 recruitment campaign for poll workers.
In 2018, nearly 200 poll workers didn’t show up on Election Day, causing long lines.
Tyler Fleming, Anna Mitchell and Thomas Novelly contributed to this story.