I. In Focus This Week
Part-time poll workers: Problems solved or problems created
Would eliminating 12+ hour days solve some elections problems?
No one wants to be trapped indoors for 12-15 hours per day, especially in paradise and that’s part of the reason why Hawaii recently announced it will pilot a program allowing poll workers, on a very limited basis, to work part-time in the Aloha State.
Beginning this year, the state will allow one poll worker in 108 of Oahu’s largest polling places to split their shift — and the $85 per day stipend — with another poll worker. The pilot will not be available at any of the 90 polling sites on neighboring islands.
"We've had people asking us if they could work half a day in the past,” Scott Nago, Hawaii elections chief said.
Hawaii is not the first state of course to allow part-time poll workers.
Less than a third of states allow poll workers — on some level — to work part-time. Some jurisdictions limit the practice to student poll workers, where others limit it to the type of election-day worker.
But with voting wait time one of the indices in Pew’s recent Election Performance Index, could part-time poll workers help some of those lower performing states improve their ranking by encouraging more people to “volunteer” to work the polls?
“While there is tremendous push from the political parties and civic activists to allow part time poll workers, often it appears that the failure to have the part time option is an excuse, not a reason, for why people won’t work as poll workers,” said Cameron Quinn, director of elections in Fairfax County, Va.
In Virginia, poll workers are permitted to work part-time and it’s been met with varying degrees of success.
According to Quinn, most election officers (EO) are full-day officers and that is what is preferred. Assignment preference is given to those that serve full-time because they not only fill the larger need, but because they tend to be more reliable in their commitment.
“Staff reports that many part-time poll workers are difficult to work with because they are very specific about their needs, rather than serving to meet the needs of the public,” Quinn said. “Further, there does not appear to be the same level of commitment, meaning that on average part time poll workers are more likely to be ‘no-shows.’”
Quinn said that her office strongly prefers placing part time poll workers who have arranged a partner to serve the other half of the shift themselves (rather than trying to match partners) as experience shows that the 2nd shift poll worker is less likely to show up without a tie or commitment to the person they are replacing.
“It appears to take more than twice as much effort to fill one day-long precinct position with two half-day EOs,” Quinn said.
In Fairfax County, according to Quinn, there are three advantages to using part time poll workers:
- It allows long serving poll workers who are no longer able to work a full day to continue to serve for a longer period;
- It allows people who truly want to serve, but have commitments that prohibit them from serving for a full day, the opportunity to serve; and
- It works well for the Central Absentee Precinct where EOs process absentee ballots.
“The big disadvantage is that it takes up enormous staff time relative to the payoff,” Quinn said. “Additionally, the changeover period impacts precinct operations and those voters who show up at that point for much of the first hour of the changeover as people leave and arrive, and the new person has to get settled into the precinct’s rhythm.”
Whitney Quesenbery and Dana Chisnell with the Center for Civic Design have spent countless hours studying and speaking with poll workers about the entire election- day process.
Quesenbery said that in the polling places where they observed part time poll workers, or additional poll workers brought in just during the morning and evening rush, the process seemed to work, but that’s because there was a process in place.
“…[I]portantly we saw good process built into polling place procedures where there were either part time worker or where workers changed role during the day,” Quesenberry said. “When the election procedures help the entire poll worker team take responsibility for running a good election in their polling place, they have more confidence in the election... and so can everyone else.”
In some states, where the practice is allowed, local jurisdictions have weighed the pros and cons and decided not to go with part-time poll workers.
“Here in Delaware County, we currently do not to this, but have considered this concept,” said Ross McDonald, election services manager, Delaware County, Ohio. “As we fleshed out the pros and cons, we decided that the cons outweighed the benefits.”
McDonald noted that the biggest fear would be an incomplete chain of custodies for supplies and materials.
“This is highly problematic with regards to recounts. Another fear is non-reporting by the second shift workers,” McDonald said.
McDonald also noted that while advertising the ability to work part-time might bolster recruitment efforts, there is also a down side to that.
“While 7 or 8 hours is much more attractive than 15 hours, by going to split shifts the office must double their recruiting numbers to meet that promise,” McDonald said. “In our situation, we don’t think the reduction in hours worked will be attractive enough to double our recruiting numbers.”
Quesenbery pointed out that there's a strong local culture to elections, along with a lot of desire for continuity. Collective memory of "how it's done" is important. But it's also important to be able to make changes so that elections can adapt to social changes.
“Part time service as a poll worker is an option that should be provided, but it should not be viewed as a panacea for the challenges of not having enough poll workers,” Quinn of Fairfax County said. “And elections offices considering use of part time poll workers need to be realistic about the challenges and explore and share ways to improve the challenges.”
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