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The neglected threat: the importance of poll worker training in a period of electoral reform.

Forget about negative campaign ads and voting machines that don't work. The single greatest threat to the 2006 election probably is human error on the part of the nation's more than 1.5 million poll workers, judging by recent history.

In 2000, poorly trained poll workers and bad management at polling sites accounted for the loss of at least a million votes, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. On Election Day 2004, more than 4,400 electronic ballots were lost in Carteret County, N.C., when poll workers failed to read a system warning indicating that a machine had reached capacity and could no longer accept votes. The following year, officials in Stanislaus County, Calif., attributed delays in reporting results to poll workers who had trouble operating new voting equipment. Farther south in Monterey County, officials blamed glitches in the posting of absentee ballot votes on "human error."

All this occurred while attention was focused on other issues such as high-tech voting machines, ballot design, voter registration rolls and ID requirements. But as former chairman of the Election Assistance Commission DeForest Soaries warned, "If you don't have those people inside the polls to help, no policy and no machine will matter. The election process breaks down without poll workers, and you can't have a democracy without them."

As we look toward the midterms, the situation involving poll workers remains problematic. Those working the more than 180,000 polling sites across the nation are aging; two years ago, the average poll worker in the United States was 72 years old. Most are temporary employees or volunteers who asked to work long hours for little pay. In the 2004 election, poll workers in Indiana were paid $75 per day, while precinct leaders received $150. That same year poll workers in San Luis Obispo County received $97, plus $10 for attending a three-hour training course. Poll workers in New York City are paid more than most. In 2004, they got a $200 stipend that, after working the required shift of at least 16 hours, amounts to about $13 per hour after taxes.

In Washington state shifts run 15 hours or more with a one-hour break. As poll worker Genie Dickerson noted, "Most poll workers are seniors, and few are accustomed to even an eight-hour workday. When polls close, a portion of workers can't compute the arithmetic necessary to complete paperwork. Others feel too pooped to care."


Dickerson recalled that late into the evening on election night of 2004, the poll workers at her site were shorthanded and tired. As a result, they "turned in results to the county that hadn't tallied for us. The county had to spend time figuring out our errors, or it simply let our errors ride. Multiplying our mistakes times hundreds of other polling places, it's no wonder that the county failed to come up with fast, accurate, clear-cut results."

These problems are compounded by the fact that poll workers today are being asked to do more than ever before. Since 2000 the electoral environment has changed dramatically. A good example of this is the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a law that added more work to the already formidable load on poll workers' backs.

In 2004, HAVA-mandated provisional ballots were used in federal elections for the first time. The law has also changed voter registration databases, voter ID requirements, and access for handicapped and non-English speakers, as well as voting technology. In the next election, 31 million Americans will use new voting machines, bringing the total number of voters using different equipment since 2000 to more than 80 million.

Thad Hall, a Professor at The University of Utah, who along with Quin Monson and Kelly Patterson of Brigham Young University have been doing research in this area, refer to poll workers as street-level bureaucrats, because they carry out the election laws and impact the process in several other ways.

"A voter's experience with their poll worker plays a key role in determining how satisfied they are in the election process and whether they have confidence that their vote was counted accurately," Hall said.

Poorly trained workers can rob citizens of their vote and change an election's outcome. Since 2006 and 2008 promise to include a number of close and hotly contested races, it is more critical than ever to have enough well-trained workers manning the nations' polling sites.

Since 2000, officials have taken modest steps to deal with the quantity and quality of poll workers. Unfortunately, the federal government has not taken a strong enough lead. For all HAVA's good intentions, it doesn't go far enough when it comes to poll workers. The law only addresses poll workers twice; it requires the EAC to encourage college students to volunteer and says that any state receiving HAVA funds must specify how it will provide poll-worker training.

The shortage of poll workers is a good case in point. Before the 2004 election, the federal government estimated that at least two million poll workers were needed, 600,000 more than were at work in 2000. So the EAC gave out federal grants designed to encourage young people to work the polls. The commission also encouraged corporations and federal agencies to give workers who wanted to volunteer to man the polls the day off with pay. Despite this, the election preceded with 500,000 fewer workers than deemed necessary.

If funding is any indication, the prospects for recruitment in the upcoming election are not promising. While the EAC is continuing the College Poll Worker Grant Program in 2006, funding has been cut from $600,000 to $250,000.

In the absence of more federal guidance, the states have taken some action. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that over the last six years, the states have considered more than 500 pieces of legislation related to poll workers; of these, 114 passed.

Some states, such as California and Ohio, have passed laws granting paid leave to state employees who serve as poll workers. Several counties, such as Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and Sacramento have followed suit by granting paid leave to their employees as well.

Franklin County, Ohio, was able to sidestep the shortage of workers that plagued other counties in 2004 by creating a program to encourage businesses and organizations to provide paid leave for employees who serve as poll workers. Similarly, Hillsborough County, Fla., Elections Supervisor Pam Iorio successfully recruited some of the larger businesses in her area, such as Tampa Electric Co., to participate in a program designed to attract qualified poll workers. Other states have introduced laws to encourage the recruitment of young people. Ohio recently passed a law lowering the minimum age for poll workers from 18 to 17.

Over the last six years, several states including Alabama, Texas and Rhode Island, have passed laws increasing compensation rates for poll workers and other election officials.

A number of localities have taken steps to make their training more rigorous. Officials in Guilford County, N.C., worked with the local college to institute a "Precinct Official Certification" program. The voluntary program was attended by more than 80 percent of the county's precinct officials, who in return received a pay increase.

Westchester County, N.Y., hired four people for its Election Inspector Training Department. Those additions meant more training, said Election Commissioner Carolee Sunderland. "We now have at least two classes a day. We started training in June and will go straight through to October. Two of the staff members are working full time on recruiting bi-lingual Westchester voters who would like to become an election inspector."

"I believe that by making these changes," Sunderland added, "the state realizes the importance of training in general."

The states cannot be expected to proceed without additional federal guidance and funding.

One way to offset the enormous costs of training is to turn to the machine vendors themselves. Diebold Inc. recently trained poll workers in 47 of 48 Ohio counties who were using their touch-screen voting machines for the May 2006 primary election. The practice of having machine companies handle aspects of poll worker training is not new. "From the '60s to the '80s, we would come into New York City right before the election and do a few hours of training," said Ransom Shoup, owner of RF Shoup, a voting systems company.

Some worry that it gives manufacturers too much power has criticized vendor training. Election security expert Douglas Jones warns that "a trustworthy system of elections must rest on one principle: trust no one." This includes vendors of election equipment, supplies and services. However in the absence of increased federal funding and guidance, machine vendor training may be an option that more localities consider.

Since most training tends to occur 30 to 60 days prior to the election, there is still time to begin to address these issues before this year's midterms. Many experts believe the first step is for states and localities to review their election laws and procedures to make sure they address today's poll worker training and recruitment needs. "Many states have election laws that date back 75 or 100 years," said Dr. Hall a Professor at The University of Utah. "They need to update these statutes and procedures to address the new election environment."

In order to recruit an adequate number of workers, these laws should be examined with an eye towards increasing compensation and diminishing hours. State and counties should consider reducing mandatory full days or allowing poll workers to split shifts; this type of flexibility may help attract a crop of new workers, including those with full-time employment and those with young children.

States and localities may also want to consider instituting new recruitment programs. They can take the lead from those who have had success targeting teens as young as 17, college students, and members of civic and community organizations. Recruiting young people is particularly important considering that the current work force is aged.

Several localities have had success giving public employees paid leave to train and work the polls. These programs should be expanded to include local private and nonprofit businesses.

Some have suggested instituting a system where poll workers are selected like jurors and required to perform their civic duty. The Commission on Federal Election Reform headed by former-President Jimmy Carter and former-Secretary of State James Baker recommended taking steps to ensure poll work is seen as an important community service; this could be done with something as simple as establishing a Poll Worker Appreciation Week or handing out certificates to thank poll workers for their contributions.

Unless we have enough well-trained poll workers to operate the new machinery and implement the new procedures, all of the reforms put in place over the last six years may not matter.
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Author:Zaino, Jeanne
Publication:Campaigns & Elections
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2006
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