On this episode of "Battleground: Ballot Box," we talk about the importance of poll workers to the election process.

Poll workers are an essential piece of the puzzle that is in-person voting, and in both the June primary and early voting for the November election, we've seen the importance of having both quantity and quality to make the voting experience run smoothly. 

To gain firsthand knowledge of the work it takes, in the last week of September I drove down to my hometown of McDonough in Henry County (just south of Atlanta) to go through the training myself and learn what it takes to serve at the polls. 

My trainer for the day is Brook Schreiner, the poll coordinator for a county that has about 170,000 voters spread out across 37 polls. The multi-hour process covers everything from preparing a polling place for voters to checking people into the polls to troubleshooting some common roadblocks or issues that may pop up.

"Every poll worker that works has to be trained," she said. "And the reason why we do it for so long is Henry County has about 700 to 1,000 poll workers that will be working this election, plus about 100 standby people waiting to be called in case there is an emergency and somebody couldn't show up."

Having trained poll workers is especially important in this election, where Georgia officials are hoping to avoid the long lines and machine malfunctions that have plagued previous elections and could inflame what will likely be a close outcome this November.

Poll workers in Georgia must be 16 years or older, able to read, write and speak English, and must be a resident or an employee of the county where they would work. Poll workers do get paid, and the amount varies by county.

This year, training looks a little different, as the coronavirus pandemic has added some additional steps and precautions to the process, such as personal protective equipment. In Henry County, poll workers have to wear masks and gloves, and will get face shields if they prefer.

Then there's cleaning products for voting equipment: hand sanitizers, disinfectant sprays, disinfectant wipes and more. 

"So after a voter leaves the voting area, please wipe down the screen so the next voter can use the machine,” Schriener instructs.

There have been no reports of a COVID-19 outbreak linked to in-person voting, but across Georgia there have been handfuls of cases reported among voters and elections staff.

During the first week of early voting, Fulton County officials reported nearly a quarter of their 60 election warehouse workers tested positive for the virus, although they had no interactions with the main elections office, any polling places or voters.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a big concern with elections this year, causing a huge shift towards absentee-by-mail voting and a shortage of polling locations and workers.

Typically, the average age of a poll worker is around 70 years old, a high-risk group for being negatively affected by the virus. After the presidential primary was postponed, one of the biggest concerns county elections officials had was making sure they had enough workers.

In Cherokee County at one point, 50 out of 400 poll workers dropped out. 

In Henry, Schriener said that there were much fewer poll workers for the primary but, after Georgia made national headlines for its issues, she's seen an explosion of interest.

"Last June, I did only train up about 400 poll workers to work, and then with the pandemic and COVID getting more aggressive, had people back out the last minute," she said. "My waiting list was about 500 people; now my waiting list is over 2,000. And every polling place again will be staffed with a minimum of 15 workers. So I'll be training again, about 700 to 1,000 people before this election starts."

Being a poll worker is part tech support, part customer service and a huge responsibility for the hundreds of early voting sites and 26-hundred voting locations open on Election Day.

Back at the Henry County training session, I'm learning about what attire is and is not allowed at the polls.

"Another thing you're going to have to look out for this election, since it is such a heated election, is the voters wearing campaign attire," Schriener said. "That's hats, buttons and shirts. If it has Obama or the Reagan T-shirt, '84 T-shirt, that's OK because they're not on the ballot."

But someone wearing a Joe Biden For President button or Make America Great Again hat is against the rules, because those candidates are ones that voters can choose from. And earlier this year, the state election board reprimanded a Roswell voter for wearing a MAGA hat to the polls in 2016.

The lone dissenting vote came from the Democratic board member, interestingly enough, who said the slogan wasn't the same as an explicit Donald Trump reference. A Republican member and longtime poll watcher disagreed.

Most of the training was about packing and unpacking equipment, handling provisional ballots and potential problems that might arise - all daunting tasks.

But those volunteers who are trained will not be alone when it comes to navigating the ins and outs of Election Day. In addition to more experienced poll managers who are in charge of the voting location, poll workers have a 103-page manual to guide them, plus reference cards and other cheat sheets spread throughout the site.
 

One of the holdups in the June 9 primary involved poll workers having to cancel the absentee ballots for voters who asked for one and ultimately decided to vote in person.

That process involves a voter filling out an affidavit, and poll workers contacting the county elections office to verify an absentee ballot has not yet been received. Generally speaking, that process should be smooth.

But in the primary, chaos reigned as an overwhelming number of absentee requests were made, and subsequently canceled as many voters changed their mind or never received their ballots.

That led to some problems, and the state to announce investigations into 1,000 cases of alleged double voting.

"A double voter knows exactly what they're doing, diluting the votes of each and every voter that follows the law," Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said. "Those that make the choice to game the system are breaking the law."

In Henry County, there's going to be more procedures in place to help poll workers reach the county office quicker and ensure fewer problems, including a call center and dedicated staff members just to handle absentee ballot cancellations.

Now that we've talked about some of the things that can go wrong, let's focus on all the things that go right: some poll workers are in charge of setting things up, placing all the voting signs and information around the location - things like “vote here” and marking off the distance that sign-waving campaigners have to abide by. 

Then there's setting up the actual machines - plugging in the touchscreen, printer, battery backups, the handicap-accessible equipment, etc.

Poll workers aren't a roll-out-of bed job, especially for the mornings.

"We are now telling y'all to be at the polling location at 4:30 a.m. instead of 6:00 a.m.; this gives you more time to fully open up and have a little bit of breather before 7 a.m.," Schreiner said.

There are a lot of security protocols in place, such as verifying the seals on voting machines, logs tracking what equipment is assigned to each poll and closely guarded passwords to activate machines and scanners.

Poll workers also have to verify that the voting machines and scanners also have a zero report, meaning there are no votes that have been cast or left over on any part of the process.

Next in the training, we walk through how to check in a voter on the poll pad system. From there, workers check to make sure that the person showing up to vote has not already cast their ballot, is in the correct precinct and is the person they claim to be.

That poll pad then loads the correct ballot onto a voter access card, which is put into the ballot-marking device where the voter makes their choices. Once the voter is finished, they print the paper record of their choice and put it into a scanner. 

Then, the voter gets a Peach "I Voted" sticker and is on their way.

After the polls close, there are more steps poll workers must take to ensure things are properly secured and put away.

Forms must be filled out and signed by multiple workers, equipment must be powered down and resealed and the memory cards from each scanner is delivered back to the main elections office to be uploaded into the election night results. 

For this November election, there has been an outpouring of interest in younger, more tech-friendly poll workers stepping in to help. Private companies, groups like the Metro Atlanta Chamber and everyday Georgians have stepped in to get trained to help out.

State officials say there will be one trained technician per polling place, and thousands of people across Georgia have expressed interest in being poll workers and been trained.

There are a lot of moving parts and pieces, and this is a new voting system for even the most seasoned poll workers, so remember just a little bit of patience with the process if you choose to vote in person.

And remember - there will always be elections that will always need poll workers, and it's never too late to ask your county elections office about volunteering.

Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show at gpb.org/battleground, or anywhere you get podcasts. 

Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Our editor is Wayne Drash. Our intern is Eva Rothenberg, the show is mixed by Jesse Nighswonger and the director of podcasting is Sean Powers.