Poll workers Debrah Murriel, left, and Kimberly Murriel, center, assist Tawny Minton as she prepares to vote at Casey Elementary during the runoff elections Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

Michael Philipone has asthma and high blood pressure, and the 59-year old said he’s worried about working the polls in DeSoto County on Election Day amid a worldwide pandemic.

“I have pre-existing conditions that could make it tough if I catch COVID,” Philipone said. “I’ll be wearing a mask and I’ll be wearing a shield. The biggest thing is just being careful and staying away from anybody who doesn’t have a mask.”

Philipone’s wife, Cynthia, also a DeSoto poll worker, said “Mississippi has done nothing” in terms of mandating voters wear masks or allowing widespread early or mail-in voting.

“What is the governor thinking?” Cynthia Philipone said. “What is the Legislature thinking? Republicans are voting, too, and Republicans get COVID, too. It’s not like it’s a Democrats-only disease.”

But the Philipones, like most of the roughly 10,000 poll workers across the state, plan to do their jobs and help Mississippians cast votes on Tuesday.

Pamela McKelvy Hamner, 52, of Southaven, said she signed up to be a poll manager as a way to better understand the voting process and to help voters understand their rights. She said she’s seen voter intimidation and suppression tactics in previous elections and wants to combat them.

Despite some health conditions, McKelvy Hamner also plans to work the polls, and said she has taken additional precautions, such as buying her own masks and sanitizer. She said she really worries about the risk to older voters.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought some poll worker shortages in states across the country. But state and local election officials in Mississippi said that while there have been some issues — with some older workers deciding to opt out — they expect most Mississippi precincts to be fully staffed. Many, in fact, will have extra workers on Tuesday, helping with sanitation, supplying personal protective equipment and dealing with any other pandemic-related challenges.

Secretary of State Michael Watson this week said he has heard of no drastic shortages of poll workers in Mississippi. While his office didn’t have numbers on additional workers hired — that’s handled at the county level — his office has provided counties nearly $255,000 in federal funds to hire more poll workers, and another $745,000 for pandemic-related expenses that could include hiring more poll workers. All told, the state has earmarked more than $4 million in federal dollars counties can use for elections, PPE and related expenses.

Watson said his office also created an online “Poll Worker Portal” to recruit poll staffers for all counties, and that more than 9,800 people signed in. Watson said this was something he planned to do even before the pandemic, similar to what some other states have, and that it should help recruiting poll workers in future elections.

Watson said he weeks ago visited with the circuit clerk in Yalobusha County and asked him, “Do you have enough poll managers?”

“He said, ‘It’s tight, really tight. If we have anyone get sick or drop out, we’re going to have problems,’” Watson said. “We checked the portal, and there were 30 names of people signed up for his county. He now has a bullpen of additional workers if he needs them.”

But Steve Cummings, an election commissioner in Yalobusha County, said there have still been problems with hiring and retaining poll workers. He said there are two main concerns: masks and age.

“I had one who came to training, but didn’t want to have to wear the mandatory mask, so they dropped out,” Cummings said. “We’re probably going to be OK, but it’s just been very difficult to find them. It’s your older people who are very leery. All you can say is, ‘I understand.’”

Thessalia Merivaki is an assistant professor of American politics at Mississippi State University whose research focuses on election reform and administration, voter education and election data transparency. She said recruiting and retaining poll workers is a struggle even in normal times and that state election operations are decentralized and not very transparent.

“We really don’t know what things will look like Nov. 3, but I really expect most counties will still be short staffed,” Merivaki said, given more duties for poll workers from the pandemic and the potential for large turnout. “… It’s always a challenge – it’s a difficult job, a long day, they’re not well paid.”

But many election officials, particularly in more populated counties, told Mississippi Today that things are going well, and they expect a relatively smooth election despite the pandemic and an expected high turnout.

“So far, honestly, so good,” said Kelly Wedgeworth, a Rankin County election commissioner. “We have pulled in extra poll workers … I have added, depending on the size of the precinct, two to three more workers at each of the 10 precincts I have in my district … We’ve got the PPE in, packed and ready … I feel pretty good with where we are.”

Shelia Landsell, a Lee County election commissioner, said she had four older poll workers opt out of working this election, but that they gave plenty of notice and have been replaced, plus the county has hired extras.

Landsell said that for her district, she has extra poll workers who will focus on PPE and even a “social distancing floor director” who will ensure voters are not too crowded or close inside precincts. She said some of her precincts are in fire stations, and that bay doors will be open and that things have been moved around polling places to allow social distancing.

“Our circuit clerk did a lot of preplanning and preparation,” Landsell said. “Had she not, we probably would be in trouble. But I think Lee County is in good shape.”

Toni Jo Diaz, a Harrison County election commissioner, said the county’s “seasoned” poll workers plan to work, and the county has hired more.

“We’ve had some problems, but not enough to worry about it,” Diaz said. “I would have anywhere from 45 to 50 (workers in her district in a normal election). Right now I’m at about 65, and I have 20,000 registered voters.”

Mississippi is considered a “bottom-up” state as far as elections — they are run on the local level, not by a centralized commission or the secretary of state’s office. Watson said that even amid a global pandemic he sees no reason that should change, although he said the state, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard have “worked seamlessly” with local governments to help get PPE in place for elections.

“They know their voters best,” Watson said. “The government closest to the people is that which governs best.”

But some have questioned why the state hasn’t done more to ensure voters and poll workers are safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Mississippi is the only state in the country where in-person voting on Election Day is the only option available to all voters. Mississippi did less to expand early voting or voting by mail than other states, and absentee voting still requires one of a set of excuses that do not include risk of COVID-19.

At the end of September, Gov. Tate Reeves rescinded a statewide mask mandate — the first state to remove such an order. Although poll workers are required to wear masks, both Reeves and Watson have said requiring voters to wear masks would be an unconstitutional infringement, despite a federal court ruling to the contrary.

McKelvy Hamner said the state should have done more.

“There are a lot of older people who, straight up, somebody is going to get sick from COVID and die from going to vote and that shouldn’t be,” the poll worker said. “Mississippi should be ashamed. You wouldn’t let people vote early during a national pandemic because of what? … The suppression and voter intimidation.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.