Electionline Finds Wide Variation on Poll Worker Training

Electionline Finds Wide Variation on Poll Worker Training

America's poll workers, the largest one-day workforce in the country, receive uneven job training and low pay, and face long hours and increasingly complex job requirements according to new research by electionline.org, a project of The Pew Center on the States.

According to the analysis, two million Americans serve as poll workers, most with only a few hours of specialized instruction. Consequently, they often come to work on Election Day only to find polling places understaffed because of no-shows or personnel shortages.

“Helping Americans Vote: Poll Worker Training” offers an in-depth look at state requirements for poll worker training and pay, as well as an examination of how localities confront problems with absenteeism and recruitment.

“Elections are fundamentally a human endeavor,” said Doug Chapin, electionline.org's director. “Even as laws and technology evolve, elections still need people to make them work. This study suggests that some poll workers are not receiving the necessary training to administer an increasingly complex vote.”

The human element is an important part of election administration, and when it goes wrong it can affect the quality of the voting experience: late-arriving precinct captains can lead to disenfranchised voters; incorrect understanding of rules can lead to misapplication of identification or registration requirements; and lack of training can result in uncountable provisional ballots, poor instruction on machine use, or limited assistance for voters with disabilities or for those who speak languages other than English.
The environment for recruiting and training poll workers is growing more complex every day.

Among the requirements poll workers have had to implement over the last few years in the wake of the Help America Vote Act of 2002: implementation of new voting machines accessible for people with disabilities, mandates for provisional voting, expanded statewide registration databases and voter identification requirements for some first-time voters and voter ID laws in some states.

In addition, poll workers are finding that the voting equipment in their polling places continues to change, with a myriad of options in place for jurisdictions, from electronic machines for optical scanners to paperless electronic systems that require paper audit trails to aging lever systems.

The survey finds that there is no consistency among states on preparing poll workers. Specifically:

  • Eighteen states leave training entirely to localities, while 10 use a combination of locally-crafted programs that employ some state-required materials.
  • Poll-worker pay is almost universally low, with compensation for combined training and one day of election service – as much as 14 to 16 hours in some jurisdictions – usually combining to little more than the federal minimum wage.
  • More often than not, compensation is determined locally, with pay ranging from the national low of zero in Vermont where poll workers are strictly volunteers to a high of $325 per Election Day in some New York jurisdictions. The average rate is approximately $100 for the day;

With such low pay, absenteeism and morale continue to be challenges, the report notes. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, one out of three poll workers trained to work on election day fails to show up for work. electionline.org's survey found that strategies for managing absenteeism varied nationally:

  • Four states seek to reduce absenteeism with penalties for no-shows, including a possible felony conviction in Indiana, Nebraska and Tennessee and a five-year ban from polling place employment in Kentucky.
  • Twenty-three states allow the top-ranking election official at a precinct to find replacement workers among the voters at the polling place, while Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia specifically mandate trained substitutes to be at the ready to fill in for staffing gaps in localities. Seventeen states have no specific guidance on the subject.

The report is available at http://electionline.org. To request a printed copy, please contact media@electionline.org.

electionline.org is a project of The Pew Center on the States, a division of The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Center examines effective policy approaches to critical issues facing states by conducting highly credible research, bringing together diverse perspectives, analyzing states' experiences to determine what works and what doesn't, and collaborating with other funders and organizations to shine a spotlight on nonpartisan, pragmatic solutions.