Sen. Zach Wahls has signed up as a poll worker in Johnson County, and encourages other young people to do the same

Zach Wahls announces his candidacy for Iowa State Senate. Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Election officials in eastern Iowa and beyond have one resounding message for primary voters: fill out your ballot from home.

With social distancing in effect — and the Wisconsin primary on April 7, in which thousands of voters found themselves in long, slow lines in and outside polling places, serving as a cautionary tale — Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate has expanded the mail-in voting period for Iowa’s June 2 primary election from 29 to 40 days in an effort to promote early voting. Iowans may request an absentee ballot now through May 22, and county auditors will begin mailing absentee ballots on April 23.

Though it’s likely Iowa, like Wisconsin, will hit a record for mail-in ballots this spring thanks to COVID-19, the polls are still set to open for in-person voting on Election Day. This reality prompted state Sen. Zach Wahls to sign up as a poll worker for the primary election in Johnson County.

“I am voting by mail, everybody should vote by mail, but we also know that there are going to be a lot of people who don’t vote by mail,” Wahls told Little Village. “And so I was thinking, well, shoot, the folks who normally work on Election Day … are very old. In Johnson County, something like 80 percent of the folks who volunteer as election workers on Election Day are senior citizens and people who are in that at-risk population [for COVID-19], because of their age.”

The 28-year-old senator, who represents Senate District 37 (including Cedar County and parts of Johnson and Muscatine counties), is two years into a four-year term, and thus not on the ballot this election cycle. He said he is not at risk for severe complications should he contract the novel coronavirus.

“I thought, I’ll step up and try to basically sub in for a senior who is not, I think, really going to be the people you want running this,” Wahls said. “I continue to think that we really should have gone into all-mail voting, but obviously the governor chose not to do that.”

Since the legislative session was suspended on March 14, Wahls has relocated from Des Moines back home to Coralville, where he said he’s been sheltering at home with his fiancée and fielding calls and emails from constituents. Wahls discussed his current routine in a blog post on Medium.

“When I decided to run for office, I never would have imagined that during my first term as a state Senator that I would be dealing with a global pandemic. And I certainly never would have guessed that my senate district would be at the heart of an outbreak of that disease in my own state,” he wrote. “… Two rules I am trying hard to observe: (1) listen to subject matter experts and (2) do not share or repeat information that I do not know is accurate.”

Wahls is encouraging other low-risk young people to join him behind a table on June 2 in polling places across the state. He is also asking local businesses to give employees who have opted to serve as poll workers the day off.

“You know, our elders have done a lot of really important things for us, and I think it’s time for us to pay it forward,” Wahls said.

Poll workers in Johnson County are paid $15 an hour, with time and a half if they exceed eight hours in a day, and 58 cents/mile for mileage. Shifts are typically from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

In a statement, the Johnson County Auditor’s Office said they plan to implement social distancing and safety precautions at polling places, including,

• Providing each polling location with a tape measure and tape to create social distancing floor markings for the voter lines
• Posting signage at polling place on respiratory etiquette
• Providing multiple bottles of hand sanitizer for each polling place

They also hope to provide poll workers with basic personal protective equipment.

With the Iowa Caucuses out of the way, for better or worse, Iowa’s June primary election will decide nominees for state and local offices. Probably the most prominent race on the ballot is for Joni Ernst’s U.S. Senate seat. Ernst is running for reelection, and has five Democratic challengers: Michael Franken, Kimberly Graham, Theresa Greenfield, Eddie Mauro and Cal Woods.

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