Protecting Against Polling Place Consolidation and Poll Worker Shortages

by Voting Rights Lab

September 1, 2020

Research Summary

​Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen a variety of election related disasters during the primary elections – from massive polling place closures resulting in long lines to poll worker shortages and absentee ballots not arriving on time. As we approach the final two months before the presidential general election, election officials across the country are frantically scrambling to finalize their in-person polling locations.

​We expect to see threats of last minute attempts to consolidate in-person polling locations due to difficulty in securing locations or due to poll worker shortages in staffing. To prepare for this contingency, the Voting Rights Lab commissioned an online survey conducted by Strategies 360 to test messaging to protect access to in-person polling locations and assess support for various methods of overcoming poll worker shortages. In addition, we tested how voters are thinking about coronavirus’s effect on the election, how voters plan to vote this year, and what their expectations are for the election.

COVID-19’s Impact on the Election

​Voters continue to feel the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the nation for over five months. Overall, Americans still have serious concerns about COVID but feel less urgency to make changes to election laws than they did in April.

  • COVID-19 has affected people more since April. Twice as many people than in April know someone who’s been diagnosed with COVID (20% to 40%), face mask usage has soared (65% to 88%), and approval of Trump’s COVID response is down (46% to 40%).
  • There is widespread pessimism about the course of the virus. 42% think the worst is yet to come, whereas just 20% think the worst is behind us. In April,  just 13% said the country would still be dealing with widespread outbreaks and social distancing by November, but now 43% think that’ll be the case.​
  • Voters don’t think we are taking the virus seriously enough. Nearly 3 in 4 (73%) think that others aren’t taking the virus seriously enough with only 27% thinking that people are overreacting. Most Americans support stronger protective public health measures (43%) or say current measures are appropriate (40%).
  • Voter pessimism extends to the election. Few voters (only 18%) think their state is fully prepared for the election, and about half (43%) think coronavirus cases will rise as a result of it.

Personal Voting Behavior

  • About half of voters plan to vote by mail in November – 47% voting absentee, including a majority of voters of color (51% of African Americans, 55% of Latinos), and 47% voting in-person.
  • Most voters (61%) think it will be safe to vote in-person with PPE and social distancing, compared to 51% in April. But even 30% of those who think it will be safe to vote in person are still planning to vote absentee.
  • In-person voters don’t have huge concerns about their vote, but voters of color are much more likely to be concerned. Overall, 39% are worried about being exposed to coronavirus, and fewer than that have various other concerns (intimidation, not knowing the location of their polling place, lack of time, etc.). Voters of color are much more concerned about being exposed to coronavirus (61% of African Americans, 62% of Latinos) than white voters (34%).
  • There is still broad national support for vote by mail. Nearly half of voters (48%) support sending all voters either an absentee ballot or absentee ballot application, while about a quarter support no-excuse, and just 20% favor excuse-required or no absentee voting at all in their state.

Protecting Access to the Polls

As election officials face the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and more voters opt to cast their ballot absentee, many localities are considering reducing the number of in-person polling locations. While increasing absentee ballot usage is critical to reducing congestion for in-person polling places, absentee voting alone will not be enough to ensure that all polling places are safe. Therefore, it is critical to protect access to robust in-person voting opportunities as well.

  • Most voters start off recognizing a need for both absentee and in-person voting, with over 6 in 10 favoring both options being available. There is a set of ~18-20% of people who are very worried about COVID and want to go full-absentee/close polling places. There is also a small group of people (7%) that are anti-absentee, but would also prefer to close polling places. 
  • The strongest messaging emphasizes giving voters choices to vote in a way that works best for them, their schedule, and their health and safety. Citing chaos in earlier primaries and potential for crowding is also effective.
  • A broad majority continue to believe voters should have the choice to vote absentee or in-person, despite 60% (71% of Democrats) acknowledging the potential for poll worker shortages.
  • Voters overwhelmingly favor a range of measures to attract poll workers. Support for attracting poll workers spans demographic, partisan, and racial lines. Notably, using the state’s National Guard is the least popular solution to poll worker shortages.
  • After hearing potential solutions, most voters agree that a poll worker shortage is NOT a valid excuse to consolidate in-person polling places. However, we will need to continue pushing Democrats, who are more likely to say poll worker shortages are a valid reason to consolidate polling places.
  • Voters across party lines trust local health officials’ opinions on polling place consolidation. Voters think decisions about consolidation should be driven by public opinion as well as local health and election administrators, who are seen as less partisan than state and national leaders.


Strategies 360 conducted a large-sample survey of registered voters in 45 states plus DC – excluded were states who permanently mail every or nearly every voter a ballot (WA, OR, CO, UT, HI). The survey was conducted online from August 5-13th, 2020. The sample includes a base of 2000 voters across the 46-states (MoE 2.2%), plus an additional 500 Latino and 500 African American interviews, for a total of 662 Latino respondents (MoE 3.8%) and 686 African American respondents (MoE 3.7%).