I. In Focus This Week
Poll workers are ‘a rare breed’
What happens when the backbone of Election Day has issues?
By M. Mindy Moretti
When Brian Newby, election commissioner in Johnson County, Kansas talks about poll worker training, he likes to talk about reverse psychology.
“I often joke that if there is something I want our workers to do that is most important, I should begin the topic in training as, "whatever you do, please don't do this…," Newby said.
As an example, Newby noted that as social media became more prevalent, he began stressing during poll worker training that he didn’t want poll workers posting to Facebook or Twitter during the election day.
“I didn't really think any of our workers would — I was mostly getting my patter down for our high school student training later that fall,” Newby said. “[But] [s]ure enough, in the spring, an election worker posted midway through the day on Facebook.”
Even though more and more jurisdictions are moving to vote-by-mail or vote centers, thousands of poll workers are still needed nationwide for each and every election.
Typically these are well-meaning, hard working folks who sacrifice their time for little money and little appreciation from voters. However, mistakes happen and problems do arise and how jurisdictions deal with that varies.
“Everyone makes mistakes, we understand. And poll workers are a rare breed” said Michael B. Winn, director of elections for Travis County, Texas and the current president of the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers (IACREOT).
Winn said when problems do arise, his office does its best to salvage the poll worker so they can continue to work, but if not, they are let go.
Matt Woehrle, election worker manager for Johnson County agreed that salvaging a problematic poll worker is always the first, best option.
“I am not one to like confrontation with people, but that comes with the job,” Woehrle said. “I always try to give workers the benefit. [But] [i]f you have a worker that is problematic with the voters, for example throwing their cell phone at the voter, that is something that is handled on election day, usually with the removal of the worker.”
Winn said that in Travis County, poll workers come in and meet one-on-one with the staff in the months before and after an election to talk about their performance, what’s expected and to get their input on the process.
“We retain 85 percent of our poll workers,” Winn said. “It [the one-on-ones] is good because it keeps the message of what’s expected consistent and it also so gives them an opportunity if they want to have an input then they are vested in the program.”
Although partisan issues do sometimes arise and on a rare occasion some elections skullduggery, one of the biggest problems that seem to arise on Election Day is interpersonal.
“If the behavior issue involves disruptions to the polling place, the person is removed. If the behavior issue involves merely a desire to work somewhere else or with other people, we may be able to re-assign a person to a different precinct before the next election or at the next term,” explained James P. Allen, director of communications for the Chicago board of elections.
Allen said one thing that has dramatically helped the poll worker situation in Chicago are student election judges. The city uses literally thousands of high school and college-aged election judges to serve in a variety of capacities.
“Chicago has the nation’s most successful program for recruiting, training and deploying high school and college student judges of election,” Allen said. “Student judges not only fill vacancies but also have added a degree of technological savvy that the older poll workers often appreciate.”
And of course problems in the process can also serve as learning experiences. That’s what happened in Tulsa County, Oklahoma.
“One election night, an inspector stopped by his church for choir practice before returning his supplies to the Election Board,” explained Patty Bryant, secretary of the Tulsa County election board. “We used that as an example for what NOT to do…”
Bryant said following the incident she had the assistant district attorney come speak to each training class for about two months following that episode to stress the importance of the chain of custody of ballots and not to let them out of sight.
“We also reminded them they may be called to testify should we be called to court due to an irregularity or a recount,” Bryant said.
Vetting poll workers before Election Day can be helpful to a smoother process as well.
“We have discovered things about people when they attend training class prior to working at a poll such as: bad personal hygiene, unwillingness to follow instructions, inability to read, onset of dementia, etc.,” Bryant said. “This is helpful to find out during training rather than waiting for a voter or another precinct worker to report their problem to us.”
Winn said he works closely with the local political parties to identify good candidates.
"I'm frankly kind of shocked by the number of people on that list," Tim Burke, chairman of the board and leader of Hamilton County's Democratic Party told The Cincinnati Enquirer at the time. "We want everyone to vote. If we have poll workers who don't vote, we're not encouraging that."
Hamilton County requires poll workers to vote and according to the paper, the failure to vote often “trips up” poll workers during their review process.
Not all Ohio counties do however require poll workers to vote and while most jurisdictions do require poll workers to be registered voters—with the exception of student poll workers—whether or not their participation in the process is enforced varies.
“We do not have an established policy because this hasn't been a chronic issue in our county,” explained Jessica White, assistant election commissioner in Johnson County, Kansas. “We proactively include an advance voting by mail application with every election worker assignment letter. This makes it easy for them to get an advance ballot and return it prior to election day.
In Tulsa County, precinct workers must be active voters, but that doesn’t mean they must vote in all elections.
“Precinct officials must be active voters. Occasionally their name will come up as having not voted in past elections,” Bryant explained. “When that happens, we contact them and tell them they must vote to stay active. Because we don’t check voting records of each precinct official, we rely on our state voting system to alert us when this happens.”
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