WASHINGTON – Local election officials are dealing with myriad 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 jurisdictions 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; 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.
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 got a pizza party, and students who served earned $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.
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.
“It sparks an interest in voting and civic engagement at an early age that might last a lifetime,” Poland said.