Election Administrators Struggle With Workforce Problem

Every two years, election officials collectively hire over 1 million employees the largest one-day workforce in the nation for a low-paying weekday 10-14 hour stint.

Each election, fully staffing polling places with trained workers is harder to accomplish. As part of reform initiatives in state capitals and Congress, election administrators said last week they want lawmakers to adopt measures to entice more people to become election day poll workers.

"Locating qualified poll workers is the longest-running problem in the history of problems. It gets worse with every election," said Gwenn Hofmann, a senior human resources advisor for the International Federation for Election Systems.

Hofmann and other experts discussed the problem at a forum in Washington. D.C. sponsored by the League of Women Voters, a group that counts among its members hordes of election officials and poll workers.

Making election day a national holiday or tapping state employees, high school students or teachers to staff the polls are some of the proposals under consideration in state legislatures and in Congress. Eighteen states are considering proposals to raise salaries for poll workers. Thirteen others would increase the amount of training poll workers get.

Working the polls is hardly a cushy job. Aside from the infrequent nature of the job and the long hours required, poll workers are paid from $35 a day in some rural areas locations to $200 in affluent cities and suburbs. A once reliable employment pool of stay-at-home moms dried up when women entered the working world in large numbers.

Fairfax County, Va. Republican Party chairman Joe Underwood said retired people now make up the bulk of election day employees, and that some are hard-pressed to do the job. Poll workers face language barriers communicating with new citizens and often cannot handle the rigors of moving election machines and heavy ballot boxes.

Bills passed or now under consideration include:

  • Legislation in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas to raise day rates or hourly pay for poll workers. Kentucky lawmakers rejected a poll worker pay raise provision.
  • A bill in New Jersey to exclude wages earned by poll workers on from their gross income in their state income taxes.
  • A measure in Rhode Island to allow part-time poll workers. The law is already on the books in Virginia, where poll workers can elect to take seven-hour days. Underwood, Fairfax County Republican Party chairman, said the rules appeal to the elderly, who often have difficulty with long hours.
  • Lawmakers in Indiana, New Jersey and Texas are considering bills that would grant high school students excused absences if they work at the polls. A similar measure in Illinois would require employers to allow their workers to have the day off to work at the polls without fear of any penalty other than the loss of one day's pay.