It was the first job that Chad Withers had ever quit on the spot. After working for just one-and-a-half days as a poll employee at Denton’s North Branch Library, he’d had enough.
Even though shifts were 14-hours long, Withers said he enjoyed the gig; it made him feel as though he were contributing to the greater good. But several of his Republican coworkers refused to wear masks, making him — and many voters — feel uncomfortable.
“They know that they’re in power, so if you try to challenge them or say something, then you’re possibly compromising your vote,” he said. “And you can feel that among people whenever they were voicing their concerns.”
Every single one of the 1,000 early voters on Tuesday wore a mask, Withers said.
Last week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to elections officials stating that it is illegal to force poll workers or voters to wear masks, per the governor’s order. Yet some see the move as a form of intimidation. When a poll location’s workers don’t comply with coronavirus safety guidelines, it may make voters reconsider casting their ballot there.
Withers said he encouraged his friends to come vote at the North Branch Library location on the first day of early voting, but they were upset that multiple poll workers there were unmasked. Five strangers also approached him that day to object, he said.
Two days later, the library was forced to close because an employee had contracted the coronavirus, although it was allowed to remain a voting location.
Following that announcement, Withers said one of his unmasked coworkers loudly declared that the closure was proof that masks don’t work. She also alluded to her political preferences and didn’t social distance.
But the final straw was after she complained loudly during a phone call that she was the only person doing any work, he said.
Then, he quietly told his supervisor he was leaving, he said.
“That’s why I just left, because I didn’t want to do what she was doing: making a scene,” Withers said. “Even if just one voter overheard something, that’s one voter who might be intimidated or might be swayed.”
“I was shocked and disappointed to hear about it,” he said. “At best, it’s selfish and irresponsible. At worst, it’s voter suppression.”
Other local polling locations have been causes for concern, said Mary Infante, elections integrity administrator for the Denton County Democratic Party. She said she’s heard multiple complaints of workers who refuse to wear masks, some of whom have also expressed their political preference while on the clock.
Many voters have skipped going to their regular polling location because they want to avoid such encounters, Infante said. That could have a chilling effect on their ability to vote.
Although there’s been an increase in poll worker applications, it’s difficult to have those positions filled right away, Infante said. When someone quits, it takes time for people to go through online training, she said.
“We have lost election workers who are beginning to refuse to work with those who do not wear masks and follow safety protocols,” Infante said. “Especially with the COVID numbers, the rate of infections increasing.”
Denton County allowed bars to reopen last week, but its coronavirus hospitalization rate is on the rise, according to the Denton Record-Chronicle. Both the County Judge Andy Eads and a county commissioner recently tested positive for COVID-19.
Even with rampant community spread, Infante said she has noticed as soon as one elections clerk refuses to wear a mask it creates a sort of “snowball effect.” Poll workers then get the message they don’t have to abide by COVID-19 safety guidelines.
To Withers, it reads as a blatant show of political preference.
“Not wearing a mask, to me, is voter intimidation,” he said. “It’s showing where you stand.”