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A democracy in need of first responders


Nicole Scott, an attorney with Nexsen Pruet in Charleston, had been thinking about applying to become a poll worker during the 2020 election, and a recent order from the South Carolina Supreme Court gave her just the nudge she needed.

The South Carolina Judicial Branch announced that it’s offering attorneys up to six hours of CLE credit for serving as poll workers on Election Day, in response to a critical shortage of volunteers needed to make the election run smoothly.

Scott applied online to become a poll worker just before lunch time on Oct. 5. By the end of lunch hour, she found out that she was hired. Scott said she is glad to do what she can for the democratic process.

“So many people throughout the world die for this right to vote that we take for granted,” Scott said. “It is a privilege and the fact that so many people don’t vote just saddens me.”

Election officials across the country have been dealing with a staffing crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many volunteers—who are typically older and thus at greater risk from the virus—to withdraw because of safety concerns. The Pew Research Center said that, in the 2018 general election, almost 60 percent of poll workers were 61 or older, and roughly 27 percent were over the age of 70.

“State and county election officials know many of our long-serving and dedicated poll managers, particularly those that fall into high-risk categories, have decided that working the polls in November is not worth the associated risk to their health,” the State Elections Commission says on its website.

An unprecedented number of younger volunteers have stepped up in response, but large gaps still remain. A shortage of poll workers caused significant delays and complications during South Carolina’s June primary. Early voting for the general election began in South Carolina on Oct. 5, and pictures from the first day showed long lines across the state. 

As an inducement to encourage more attorneys to volunteer to work at the polls, Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty signed an order Oct. 1 that will allow attorneys to earn up to six hours of general CLE credit for poll-working on Nov. 3.

The polling place must be located in South Carolina, and lawyers must comply with all training requirements and be eligible to serve as a volunteer and work the entire day, generally 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., excluding lunch and normal break times, to receive CLE credit. No partial credit will be provided to lawyers who volunteer for less than a full day.

Poll workers are generally paid for their time, but lawyers must decline pay for service and training to qualify for CLE, and an election official must certify the lawyer’s service at the polls.

“What a great opportunity for the women and men of our Bar to perform an important public service!” Supreme Court Justice John Few said in a Tweet after the order was signed. “Let’s see the Bar step up!”

The SEC and county election officials said that they’re taking steps to help make polling places as safe as possible for voters and poll workers, providing masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes, and even offering disposable cotton swabs for making touch-screen selections. They’re also providing online training when possible and small-group, socially-distanced training.

Amber Hendrick, an attorney with Nelson Mullins in Columbia, signed up to work the polls in August, before the CLE order, but said she plans to take advantage of the credits. 

“There were a lot of stories coming out where people were standing in line for four or more hours,” Hendrick said. “I wanted to volunteer so people could vote more easily and wouldn’t have to wait as long. If I can help out and reduce the wait time for other people and make voting go more smoothly to make sure more people vote, I want to help out however I can.”

Many other states are experiencing a similar shortage of poll workers, and some state bars have also authorized CLE credit for poll workers. The American Bar Association announced in August its partnership with the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of

State Election Directors to issue a “rally cry” aimed at mobilizing lawyers and law students to assist as poll workers for the 2020 election.

“There’s nothing more important to democracy than voting,” said ABA president Patricia Lee Refo. “We need to keep folks safe by getting folks that do not fall into high risk categories to volunteer to serve.”

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw

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