America Wants YOU to be a Poll Worker

Research shows how poll workers on the front lines of elections affect voter confidence.
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A recent study by Brigham Young University and Kent State University researchers published in the July issue of American Politics argues that election officials need to do a better job recruiting younger, more adept poll workers if they want to earn greater confidence in elections.

"They hit the nail right on the head," said Charlene Davis, the director of elections in Jackson County, Mo., who like the vast majority of election directors across the country has trouble attracting poll workers under the age of 70.

The importance of having a nimble force of poll workers on Election Day has become increasingly important in recent elections. Margin of victories are narrow, states' electronic voting equipment is often new and unfamiliar, and the rules around voter eligibility frequently change, said Kelly Patterson, co-author of the report and director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

In order to recruit younger poll workers, the study suggests partnering with businesses, local colleges and other civic groups. The research also showed that while poll workers aren't as diverse as most would like, the current crop is off the charts in terms of civic duty.

"The poll workers are the end of a long administrative process," Patterson said. "How well they're trained and how well they perform on Election Day is really the face of the election system."

In their study, Patterson and his colleagues approached election administration using the same principles that retail stores use to analyze customer satisfaction. Not surprisingly, more academic research exists on shopping than voting, so the group applied similar principles.

"As the literature on commercial service encounters would predict," the authors wrote, "the circumstances at the polling place, such as the amount of time spent waiting to be served, crowding, or a lack of privacy, were important predictors of poll worker performance. The voting time in minutes is a uniformly significant predictor of negative voter evaluations of poll workers in our models."

"What happens at the polling location on Election Day is something we've taken for granted and essentially felt good about taking it for granted," Patterson said.

Researchers surveyed voters in two of Ohio's urban counties — Franklin and Summit — during the 2006 election at a time when poll workers were faced with both new equipment and recently altered voting rules. Ohio in 2004 was also the site of the nation's most contentious contest.

Confidence in the new technology was predicted by confidence in the poll workers, they found. "Despite widespread fears the public might not like the new machines, voters overwhelmingly preferred the new machines to the previous method of voting. The surprising finding is that their confidence in the new voting technology appears to derive in part from their assessment of poll workers. If voters evaluated poll workers' performance favorably, they had more confidence in their vote being counted accurately as well as the fairness of the election."

Based on evidence from this and other studies, Patterson said he's continually struck with how different election administration is from state to state, county to county and even precinct to precinct. That's why voter advocate groups say that serving as an informed poll worker is the most important thing people can do to protect the integrity of America's election system.

In order to attract poll workers in November, Jackson County, Mo., commissioners voted to increase poll worker pay up to $120-$140 for the day and $35 for a two-hour training session.

The training poll workers receive can also stand to be improved in most states, according to election integrity groups. The Advancement Project, a nonprofit law firm that works to protect voters, reviewed poll worker training courses in Ohio. Staff attorney Donita Judge and her colleagues attended training courses in three Ohio counties in 2006 and plan to do so again this September.

"While a major part of the training was focused on the machines, and what happens if (they malfunction), how to set them up and operate them, by the time you did all that, usually four hours had gone by and there was hardly any time to cover things such as provisional ballots," Judge said.

Davis, the election director in Missouri, agrees: "These judges attend a two-hour training session. As election officials, we have to go through and say what's the most important thing they need to know. Setting up the machines is No. 1."

As a result of their work, the Advancement Project helped design a card that poll workers can consult if they have a question about voter eligibility. Franklin County, Ohio, election officials recently agreed to use the cards, Judge said. Statewide, all Ohio precincts will have a similar "cheat sheet" of scenarios that poll workers are likely to encounter, said Kevin Kidder, spokesman for the Ohio secretary of state.

Ohio has some of the most complicated rules dealing with provisional balloting. To rectify a violation of some voting rules, such as not having a valid ID, voters must return to the county election division to confirm their identity. For other matters, such as voting in the wrong precinct, the voter doesn't have to follow up. Similar rules apply to most states' provisional ballots.

Large numbers of provisional ballots could be thrown away if voters aren't notified that they need to take further steps for their vote to be counted. Analysis of the 2004 election showed that a third of all provisional ballots were uncounted, with similar results in 2006.

Patterson said he hopes the research improves poll worker performance without casting blame. "I would certainly like to see them get more credit for their hard work," he said.

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