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Rhode Island is facing a shortage of poll workers amid the pandemic

Cranston and at least five other communities don't have enough primary day workers, raising the specter of long waits to vote Sept. 8

John A. Parrillo Jr. of Cranston.
John A. Parrillo Jr. of Cranston.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

CRANSTON, R.I. — John A. Parrillo Jr. has worked at polling sites in Cranston for 15 years.

The 75-year-old retiree remains active in his community, doing volunteer work, giving blood, and, come election time, serving as the clerk at the polling site at the National Guard armory on New London Avenue.

“I am a veteran — I believe in ‘Do what you can do,’ " he said. “And I enjoy being with people — I was in sales.”

But Parrillo won’t be working the polls on Sept. 8, even though Cranston, the state’s second-largest city, has a full slate of hotly contested races, including Republican and Democratic mayoral primaries.

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Like many other long-time poll workers in Rhode Island, he is worried about contracting the coronavirus and isn’t willing to spend a long day handling paperwork for hundreds of voters. He said the deal breaker was when he heard that it’s not mandatory for voters to wear face masks.

“The governor says that if you’re over 65, lock yourself in the house, so we are doing all we can do to stay healthy,” Parrillo said. “We’ve been saying: Get the college kids or high school students to do it — they are healthier.”

Cranston still needs about 75 poll workers to finish filling 300 slots at 30 polling locations, according to Nick Lima, the city’s registrar and director of elections.

Cranston is not alone. Communities throughout Rhode Island, including Cumberland, North Providence, Central Falls, Portsmouth, and North Smithfield, are finding it hard to get firm commitments from poll workers amid the pandemic, according to Miguel Nunez, deputy director of elections for the state Board of Elections.

State election officials are so worried that they put out a call for workers on Twitter last week, and also are appealing to state workers.

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“Our local cities and towns are struggling to find poll workers during this unprecedented time in our lives,” the Board of Elections said in a message to state workers, “and they need your help.”

The message noted that poll workers are paid anywhere from $150 to $225, depending on the community.

“More importantly, you would be performing a critical public service and helping our local governments conduct these important upcoming elections,” the board said. “They need you more than ever!”

Rhode Island is hardly alone in having difficulty recruiting poll workers during the pandemic, said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “Many states are encountering the same problem and are looking for creative ways to fill the positions,” he said.

In Wisconsin, the governor called up the National Guard to help with Tuesday’s primary because of a shortage of about 900 poll workers across more than half of its communities.

In Ohio, the state Supreme Court is giving attorneys continuing legal education credits for serving as precinct officials because of an expected poll worker shortage for the Nov. 3 elections.

Common Cause has suggested that Rhode Island follow Ohio’s lead. In fact, Nick Lima, Cranston’s registrar and director of elections, has asked the Rhode Island Supreme Court to let local lawyers who work at the polls earn continuing legal education credits.

Common Cause also believes that the state should send mail ballot applications to all registered voters. Although state Senate President Dominic J. Ruggerio blocked that legislation, Common Cause continues to favor a combination of mail ballots, early voting, and in-person voting on Election Day.

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“It’s the Burger King approach — have it your way,” Marion said.

Rhode Island should avoid consolidating too many polling sites, as it did in 2016, because that can lead to confusion, with voters unsure of where to go on Election Day, he said: “The answer is to get creative in recruiting new poll workers.”

The need for poll workers is particularly acute in Cranston.

Lima said the city has not had contested mayoral primaries in both parties in decades, but on Sept. 8 it has three Democrats and two Republicans running in a pair of mayoral primaries. The city also will have a Democratic primary for City Council seats, along with state legislative primaries, including a Democratic contest between Representative Christopher Millea and Brandon Potter.

So Cranston is gearing up for the primaries much as it would for the general election, Lima said.

He said Cranston usually doesn’t have a problem finding poll workers, but the problem this year is clear: COVID-19. “We have had so many of our stalwarts tell us that they are not comfortable working this year,” he said.

The bulk of the city’s poll workers are in their 60s and 70s — retirees who have time to work at the polls on a weekday, and they see that the coronavirus is taking an enormous toll on older people, Lima said.

“It’s understandable,” he said.

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Lima said the city is trying to recruit new poll workers in a variety of ways. For example, the Cranston school department sent an email to faculty, staff, and parents, he said, noting that poll workers can be as young as 16.

The Cranston library is posting social media messages about the need for poll workers, and the city received about 50 responses to the message that the Board of Elections sent to state employees, he said.

But as of Friday, Cranston still needed about 75 more poll workers.

“For us to be short this number with a month to go until the election is obviously concerning,” Lima said. “The next couple of weeks we will be putting a lot of time into finding more poll workers because we can’t fall short.”

Cranston pays $175 for poll greeters and supervisors and $225 for poll clerks and moderators. They work from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on election day. Anyone interested can call poll worker coordinator Maria Madonna at (401) 780-3127.

Lima said he understands the concern of Parrillo, the longtime poll worker, about whether voters will wear face masks. But, he said, “People have a fundamental right to vote. If they show up without a mask, they will be allowed in, but we strongly encourage all voters to wear a mask. If they don’t have one, we will provide one, and all poll workers will wear masks.”

Parrillo said he will see how the primary goes before deciding whether he will work at the polls during the general election on Nov. 3. “If half the people come down with something, then that will be the end of it,” he said.

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In that case, Parrillo said, younger residents will have to step up. And there are signs that they are.

One is Alex Taylor, 46, of Providence, who said he’ll be a poll worker for the first time this year.

He said he is responding not only to the shortage of poll workers, but also to what he sees as the spread of misinformation and threats to the proper functioning of the electoral system.

“It seems like there is work that needs to be done,” Taylor said. “It seemed like a time to step up and help out, rather than just worrying about it.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com