Pima County lifts COVID shot policy for temp election aides as GOP ranks need filling
Unable to find enough local Republicans to staff election boards for the August primary, Pima County has lifted a requirement that temporary election workers be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Tuesday to end the policy for the workers. Election boards are supposed to have an equal number of aides from both major political parties, but the county is short on the number of registered Republicans needed to count early ballots, mark new ballots based on voter intent and tabulate ballots from the voting centers.
Each of those boards needs an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, and enough Democrats are already in place, said County Election Director Constance Hargrove.
Numbers reported to Hargrove from two weeks ago, the most recent available, tallied 27 Democratic election aides sitting on boards, but the Elections Department has only managed to scrape together 17 Republicans and five independents. Another 10 Republicans will be required to even out the "partisan composition."
All of those 49 workers already signed up are vaccinated against COVID. As many as eight more aides to serve on boards have been hired since those numbers were reported a couple weeks ago, but their party registrations weren't immediately available, Hargrove told the Tucson Sentinel.
The county will hire about 1,300 temporary workers to staff voting centers on Election Day, with about 65 aides needed, including those serving on boards. The county only tracks party registration for those who serve on boards because they're responsible for tabulating ballots. Other temporary staffers work at “various times throughout the year” to prepare for elections.
Supervisor Rex Scott asked the board to change the vaccine requirements for all temporary election workers to help with hiring leading up to primary. He put the item on the agenda after talking with officials from the Elections Department and County Recorder’s Office, he said at the meeting.
Tuesday was the last county board meeting before the Aug. 2 primaries. A hint of urgency came from Board Chairwoman Sharon Bronson, who said “what we need to do now is act immediately on this so we have election workers for the primary.”
The only opposing vote came from Supervisor Adelita Grijalva. Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, worried about “squishy issues” with the vaccine requirement but voted yes. He was worried that newer hires would be exempt from the COVID vaccine while aides previously employed by the county wouldn’t be.
The County Election Department and Recorder’s Office, however, need aides with experience and “institutional knowledge” to help secure and ready election equipment and supplies in the last weeks leading up to the primaries, Scott said.
The vaccine requirement kept the county from hiring potential aides, he said, and it made it difficult to hire an equal number of election aides from both parties.
Aides work in the weeks leading up to elections by readying supplies, testing machines and equipment and counting early ballots. They’re also temporary or “intermittent” employees who only work from several days up to several weeks.
County elections staff work overtime and weekends getting ready for the primaries, and those aides are key, Hargrove said.
“We want to be certain to have adequate staffing for this year’s election," Hargrove said in a public statement. "We especially need to make sure there will be an equitable partisan composition of election boards."
Hargrove is also finalizing hires for an administrative program manager and deputy director, who are expected a couple of weeks before Aug. 2. Hargrove is also a recent hire herself, having been hired as the elections director in late February.
County workers that worked with “vulnerable populations” had to vaccinate against COVID to keep their jobs following a county mandate on Oct. 19. The county defined those workers as any who had “sustained in-person contact with members of the public for more than 15 minutes at a time and at less than 6 feet without an intervening physical barrier.”
The original mandate from Aug. 30 required proof of COVID vaccination from anybody seeking a promotion by the county, new hires and employees who have jobs in addition to their county employment before it was extended in October. The policy included “intermittent” or temporary employees such as lifeguards.
About 3,000 “election workers” are “in the county’s system,” according the county documents, but they won’t work until the day of elections. Their vaccination status is unknown, but a minimum of 1,300 will be needed at the county's 129 vote centers during the primaries and general elections.
As with the aides, who help prepare for elections, those 1,3000 workers have to equally represent both political parties.
County Elections reported 85 active employees in their department, according to a county COVID vaccine update from Tuesday, though that report didn’t include election workers. Of the active elections employees, 58 were vaccinated, or about 68 percent.
The lifting of the vaccination mandate will only be in effect for the August primaries, according to the county. But by Sept. 24, well ahead of the November election, a state law will go into effect barring local governments from requiring COVID vaccines or masking as conditions of employment.
Pima County hosted a mock election last Friday at the Theresa Lee Public Health Center that had almost 70 participants. It was the second attempt at a mock election after county workers had technical issues with electronic pollbooks the week before.
Voters in the county will be able to drop off their ballots any of the vote centers this year. In recent years, voters have had to drop off their ballot at designated polling places, but the vote center system has been used before.
Along with the vote centers, the county also approved the use of new electronic pollbooks, which are iPads connected wirelessly to a ballot printer. The election changes coming up this year have been a target of criticism and concern, especially from Supervisor Christy. In previous meetings and on Tuesday, he's called into question the new system and election officials during a year that includes a gubernatorial race and congressional candidates on the ballot.
Hargrove said that elections staff are expecting to focus on equipment testing and training following the second mock election.
“There’s a lot of work we need to do,” Hargrove said. “We’re moving into our mandatory overtime period, so we’re going to be working late, on weekends to make sure we get everything locked down, all the equipment tested, all of our training completed before the elections.”
Christy took up most of the discussion on the upcoming elections to question Lesher and Hargrove about the preparedness of the Recorder’s Office and Elections Department. Some of the topics he interrogated Hargrove on were whether they’ve practiced tabulating votes with the new election equipment, whether they were still tweaking the electronic pollbooks and what kind of issues they had at the second mock election.
Elections staff have had successful ballot counting tests, Hargrove said, and they're still testing equipment and technology all the way until election day. The electronic pollbooks and ballot printers worked as expected during the mock election, she reported, and they're not changing their tabulation process.
As in previous board meetings, Christy asked Hargrove, "What's keeping you up at night."
“I just want to get through this primary. make sure everything’s locked down, make sure everything is correct, according to law,” Hargrove said.
“Speaking for everybody,” Christy said. “I think we just want to make sure we have a fair and accurate election all the way around.”
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.