I. In Focus This Week
A case study on college poll workers
An in-depth look at the Chicago Program
By M. Mindy Moretti
Elections officials looking to improve efficiency on election day should look no further than the nearest college, university or community college according to a recent study of the college poll worker program in Chicago.
Among other things, the Student Leaders in Elections: A Case Study in College Poll Worker Recruitment found that recruiting college poll workers helps improve the transmission of election results, makes it easier to staff polling places in need because students aren’t married to a location and students who served as bilingual poll workers are more likely to serve in future elections.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has long supported the practice of college poll workers and one of the recommendations of Presidential Commission on Election Administration was for jurisdictions to recruit more college students as poll workers.
But how effective are they and given the notorious disinterest of Millennials, how do you recruit them? Following the PCEA recommendation, in 2014 and 2015, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (CLCCRUL) set out to find the answers.
“…having read the PCEA report, we realized that we could help improve election administration and engage our target population through a program like this,” explained Ruth Greenwood, lead attorney, Voting Rights Project, CLCCRUL.
“The Chicago Board of Elections expressed interest in a college student program, so we took on the challenge to try to prove that a large college student program using modern technology — email and online signups, online trainings, etc. — could work effectively to engage our target demographic and to improve election administration.”
Chicago actually began the college poll worker program in 2000 with just 100 students and since 2006 as many as 1,700 college poll workers are at the polls during any given election. Last year — when the Board teamed up CLCCRUL — was the first time there was ever a forceful recruitment effort on campuses across the city.
For the study, CLCCRUL was responsible for recruiting students and developing relationships with the colleges and universities in Chicago while the Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners was responsible for training and assignment using the city’s existing mechanisms.
CLCCRUL used a variety of recruitment tools including emails, in-person recruitment at tables/booths at welcome events or in highly trafficked areas, flyers and posters, online job boards and presentation to classes and student groups to use a few.
They ended up receiving 3,535 applications with 1,578 students serving in at least one election and 500 who served more than once.
According to Greenwood, the most difficult part of the project was the lack of modernization at the board of elections — something that a board spokesman said the board was already working on before the study, but wasn’t ready yet in 2014/2015.
“We worked with them to ensure that the new system is as efficient as possible, including a fully online application process, online scheduling for training and placement on Election Day, additional optional online training modules, and a new position to be added at each polling place: Election Coordinator, who will have substantially more training and be able to trouble-shoot on multiple issues,” Greenwood said.
James P. Allen, communications director for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said that it was an affirmation of sorts to see that the CLCCRUL independently was telling the board that this was something they need to implement.
Once the college poll workers were in place, the study found that efficiency increased by 32 percent in polling places where college students were working.
Allen said the city has always known that a combination of older judges and college-age poll workers work best, but the study helped shed light on that.
“This report, though,” Allen said, “was the first time that there was clear analysis that revealed a very clear and direct connection between the participation of younger poll workers and the faster, smoother reporting of results on Election Night.”
In addition, the study found that bilingual poll workers were more likely to serve as repeat poll workers and community college students were more likely to serve as repeat poll workers than they’re 4-year peers.
“We suspected that we could show that using tech-savvy college students would increase the efficiency at the polling place but were especially pleased that we managed to show that not only did community college students stay as engaged as other students, but they were actually more engaged,” Greenwood said.
This is was particularly exciting for Greenwood because many community college students are low-income and/or minority students.
“It is tough to find institutional ways to civically engage with 18-30 year old low-income people of color, but we have shown that targeting community colleges as much, or more than, 4 year colleges, is a way to focus on that target population,” Greenwood said.
The study had several recommendations for elections offices and policy makers including:
- Put everything online;
- Fund the EAC College Poll Worker Grant Program;
- Remove GPA requirements for poll workers;
- Allow students to serve without being registered voters;
- Allow non-citizens to serve as poll workers; and
- Allow students who serve as poll workers an excused absence from college classes.
In addition to a more efficient process, Greenwood is hopeful that programs such this will get the aforementioned disinterested Millennials, more actively engaged. A post-election survey found that 82 percent of participants would be willing to serve again and 89 percent said they were more likely to vote in the future.
“It would be great to get more data on this, so we strongly encourage all election jurisdictions to partner with community and 4-year colleges to conduct similar programs and to assess whether they lead to ongoing civic engagement by Millennials,” Greenwood said.
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