COVID-19 has changed the way the Nov. 3 general election is being conducted, and that includes adding new procedures to keep poll workers and the public safe.

The Santa Barbara County Elections Office has added more poll worker duties since the primary election in March, required them to wear safety gear, increased training and expanded the number of days they’re needed.

The current political climate has also raised concerns among some poll workers about potential disruptions at polling places, even though Holland said he hasn’t heard of any threats of disruptions or challenges to the vote-by-mail process in this county.

But Santa Maria resident and first-time poll worker Cody Soper, who will work four days at the Liberty Elementary School polling place, is a little worried about potential disruptions or intimidation by extremists.

“I am concerned about it, a little,” Soper said. “I know the president asked his supporters to patrol the polling places. I actually spoke to my city councilwoman, Gloria Soto, about it.

“She said she would talk to the police chief about it to make sure he’s aware of it, even though we haven’t had any threats here.”

Although there are no indications of potential threats to local polling places, County Registrar of Voters Joe Holland said county officials work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the County Sheriff’s Office and local police departments to assure safety at the polls and the integrity of every election, “from cyber to physical security.”

“We’re not doing anything we haven’t done in previous elections,” Holland said, adding that sheriff’s deputies and city police officers will patrol polling places. “They won’t be stationed at polling places, but they will be patrolling them.”

Like some other poll workers, Soper said at first he was worried that being around so many people might increase his chances of contracting COVID-19.

“But I read all the information about [the local election], and I think the county is doing everything they can to protect the workers,” he said.

Given his initial concerns, why did he decide to work a polling place?

“I’m working at home, so I’m able to do that,” said Soper, who is a master electrician and a lighting designer for PCPA, which has halted public performances due to the pandemic. “Usually right now, we’d be getting ready for the next play.

“I also knew with these COVID times, there was a need for extra people, and I’m young and able-bodied,” he added. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never even voted in person before, so it will be a new experience.” 

Pandemic changes

The county has consolidated its usual 86 polling places to 35 and needs 10 to 15 poll workers at each polling place, but this year, because of special measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the polls will be open four days — Saturday through Tuesday, Election Day.

The qualifications for serving as a poll worker haven’t changed, but while in the past, poll workers were trained together in face-to-face workshops, the mandatory training has become mostly a virtual operation.

“They’re still doing some in-person training,” said Joe Holland, county registrar of voters.

After filling out an application on the County Elections Division website, aspiring poll workers can go straight into training by watching nine videos that include how to handle special situations, showing sensitivity at the polls, procedures for COVID-19 safety and how to deal with electioneering, poll watchers and the news media.

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They also cover such procedural topics as setting up polling places, the sequence of events, the provisional voting process and closing the polls.

After watching the videos, applicants take an online quiz to show what they learned.

Fernanda Uribe, a Santa Maria resident also working the polls for the first time, said she went through hands-on training. 

"I thought it was just going to be watching videos, but we each had our own terminal so we could practice what we'll be doing," said Uribe, who's a lead worker at the polling place inside the Radisson ballroom.

She decided to work the polls because she was recently laid off her job because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a relative who's working the polls suggested she give it a try. 

"I said I don't know how to do that," she said. "He said, 'Don't worry, there's training.'"

Lesli Ortega, another Santa Maria resident working the polls for the first time, said she's very interested in the election and wanted to get involved somehow.

"I'm still working, but my hours are really flexible," she said after helping set up the voting booths in the Radisson ballroom Friday. "I can pretty much get whatever time off I want."

Some of her options were walking neighborhoods, making phone calls and volunteering. She chose to work the polls.

From Saturday through Election Day, poll workers will tackle their new duties — conducting voter health screenings, instructing voters on the need to wear masks and practice social distancing, and sanitizing voting booths and other surfaces.

The Elections Office will provide poll workers with masks, face shields, hand sanitizer and disinfectants as well as masks for them to give voters who arrive without them or who are wearing masks promoting a candidate, which is considered electioneering and is not allowed within 100 feet of a polling place.

Poll workers might even find themselves dealing with voters who refuse to wear a mask and could become irate when asked to put one on.

“We will have an area set aside for those who refuse or can’t wear a mask,” Holland said.

Poll workers also will be directing traffic, managing voter waiting lines, answering questions, helping voters fill out forms and vote-by-mail envelopes, and receiving completed ballots.

“In addition to our 30 ballot drop-off boxes, we will have people waiting outside the polling places to receive vote-by-mail ballots,” Holland said.

For all that, poll workers will receive $16 an hour, but most of them say it’s not about the money but more about participating in a tradition and preserving American democracy.

“I think if people can, they should do it,” Soper said. “And I hope everyone who’s able to will vote.”

This article has been modified to include that electioneering is prohibited within 100 feet of a polling place.