Local election officials are dealing with a myriad of issues ahead of November’s contentious midterms, not least of which is securing systems from malicious actors. One lesser-known problem that continues to concern them is the national shortage of poll workers.
They greet you at the plastic folding table set up in your neighborhood’s library, church or fire station, asking you for your name, address and, depending on your state, photo ID before handing you a ballot or directing you to a voting machine. More than just glorified receptionists, these underpaid few are really the gatekeepers to democracy.
Poll workers can be the difference between a smooth election and long lines, mass confusion and miscounted ballots. But poll workers are older, less prepared and becoming scarcer.
In its 2016 biennial survey, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that two-thirds of jurisdictions had a hard time recruiting enough poll workers on Election Day, compared to fewer than half of officials in 2008 and 2012.
The shortage is a matter of recruitment and retention, said Aerion Abney, the Pennsylvania state director for All Voting is Local, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Leadership Conference Education Fund.
“I recognize that being a poll worker is not the most glamorous job,” Abney said. “People might not even be aware of it. Being a poll worker is an underappreciated job, but they provide a critical service to the public. We want to make sure people know this is an opportunity that exists.”
All Voting is Local organizers claim it is the first multistate effort to recruit poll workers. The project launched its online campaign last month, while also targeting Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin through billboard, digital newspaper, radio and social media ads.
Organizers want to make sure poll workers reflect the communities in which they serve to make voters feel more welcome, focusing especially on people of color and younger people.
Poll workers tend to be middle-aged or elderly. Indeed, 56 percent of poll workers in 2016 were 61 and older, according to the Election Assistance Commission survey. Younger people often have work or school conflicts, Abney said.
He has traveled around Pennsylvania, showing up at community events and local election offices to spread the word of their initiative. After all, he tells people, it’s an opportunity to be civically engaged and get paid. There is no set salary for poll workers statewide, but poll workers in Allegheny County, for example, earn between $115 and $140 a day.
The group’s efforts seem to be working. Nationally, organizers have recruited more than 2,400 people — 924 of whom live in Pennsylvania, where organizers have spent more time because needs are more acute.
Cherie DeBrest was ready to sign up to be a poll worker in Pennsylvania. For 18 years, she worked with parents and caregivers as a social worker at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, guiding them through the obstacles of medical care. Over the last three presidential elections, DeBrest, 49, led voter registration drives at the hospital, registering staff and the family members of patients whenever she could.
Until this election, though, she never sought to become a poll worker on Election Day. For years, she’s noticed poll workers were much older than her. Who, other than retirees, has the time to take off work on a Tuesday, she thought. But when she saw the city was looking for new poll workers, she figured it was time to act. “I was already thinking about it,” she said. “There’s no time like the present, so I got on the website and signed up.”
Counties and states have tried to recruit new poll workers for years. Local election officials are even targeting high schoolers for the job.
After Hamilton County, Ohio, implemented electronic poll books in 2015, county officials partnered with local pizza chain LaRosa’s to hold a countywide competition to see which high school could contribute the most poll workers. The winning school gets a pizza party, and students who serve earn $181.50 for the day.
The benefits of younger poll workers are undeniable, said Sherry Poland, the director of elections in Hamilton County, Ohio. They bring enthusiasm, energy and a familiarity and comfort with technology like electronic poll books and optical ballot scanners, she said. They also are more likely to remain poll workers for future elections.
“It sparks an interest in voting and civic engagement at an early age that might last a lifetime,” Poland said.
Hamilton County had only four high school poll workers in 2012, Poland said. In 2016 it had 367 — 14 percent of the county’s poll workers that year, she added.
In 2016, Ohio, California, Delaware and Michigan were the only states where more than 10 percent of poll workers were 25 or younger, according to the Election Assistance Commission. (Washington, D.C. also beat the 10 percent standard, which was the national average.) A quarter of poll workers in California were 25 and younger.
Hamilton County, however, still struggles to get enough poll workers for elections, following the national trend, Poland said. It’s an “extremely long day,” she said, and getting people to commit to a four-hour training class, a two-hour precinct set-up, and a 15-hour Election Day is difficult.
More than half of states allow students over 16 or 17 years old to serve as poll workers, according to the Election Assistance Commission.
In 2013, President Barack Obama ordered a review of election procedures after the 2012 presidential election was plagued with long lines. One of the “signal weaknesses” of the U.S. election system, a national commission found, was “the absence of a dependable, well-trained corps of poll workers.”
The primary causes of the problem, according to a 2014 report from New York-based think tank Demos, are a lack of uniform training before Election Day, disparate wages, and little recruitment among public employees and high school and college students.
The study found that only 30 states require that all poll workers receive training. Good poll workers boost voters’ confidence in elections, according to a poll of 2016 voters from nonprofit Democracy Fund. Jurisdictions across the country need to find creative solutions to recruit and train new poll workers, the foundation said.
In some places, that’s already happening. Employees of Maricopa County, Arizona, for example, can serve as election workers without taking personal time off. Franklin County, Ohio, recruits new poll workers from local businesses, while Brevard County, Florida, has invited 1,700 poll workers since 2012 to receive additional, hands-on training before Election Day.
In certain states, nonvoters, many of whom speak a foreign language, also can serve as poll workers. Since 2013, lawful permanent residents in California have been able to serve as poll workers, and many may be able to help the over 2.6 million eligible voters in the state who aren’t fully proficient in English, according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles.
At least 24 percent of Los Angeles County’s poll workers are required to be bilingual in one of 16 languages, according to the Orange County Register.
In February, Gwinnett County, Georgia, held recruitment events in the Atlanta area to try to find 350 Spanish-speaking poll workers.
When DeBrest went into her training last week, she had plenty of questions and was ready to learn as much as she could before Election Day. She wants to be ready if a voting machine malfunctions, a voter needs language assistance, or a person with a disability has an access problem.
She’s also recruited some of the hospital’s language interpreters to help at some of Philadelphia’s precincts. The two Spanish speakers and one Arabic speaker she brought on may not have the right to vote as noncitizens, she said, but they can still assist in the electoral process in a meaningful way.
She hopes her friends and colleagues at the children’s hospital will join her as poll workers in future elections.
“I’m passionate about putting my words into action and bringing people with me,” she said. “Hopefully, when they see that I followed through on everything I was preaching about voter engagement, they will feel motivated to do the same.”