New York, NY — Across the United States, a long-term under-investment in the people who make the mechanics of our elections function properly, and ensure that voters have proper access to ballots and functioning machines, is expected to be a key problem on Election Day, according to a new briefing paper by Demos, a national, non-partisan public policy and research center.
The Poll Worker Training briefing paper, which is published this week as part of Demos' Challenges to Fair Elections series, shows that democracy in the United States is suffering from lack of attention to modern poll worker requirements. From state to state, proper poll worker training, pay and staffing are often neglected elements of election administration, but are nonetheless key elements to the success of fair elections in the United States.
"Regrettably, the role of poll workers in our elections is often overlooked and under-supported," said Miles Rapoport, President of Demos. "During each election, states squeak by with a bare minimum of poll workers, many with inadequate training for an increasingly complex task. New reports and widely covered problems with recent primary elections have illuminated just how grave this problem is."
Recent problems with primaries include:
* In Maryland, after a disastrous primary where dozens of polling places opened late and some voters were directed to cast ballots using scrap pieces of paper, election officials are scrambling to hire and train thousands of new poll workers.
* In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the May 2006 primary was hamstrung by a nearly 20 percent absentee rate among poll workers. Polls opened late and election staff had difficulty operating the new voting machines. Seventy memory cards with vote tallies were lost.
* Better poll worker training would have prevented a significant number of problems during the fall primaries.
o A survey of booth workers at 2006 primary polling sites in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, showed that 57 percent did not feel that they had enough hands-on practice using the machines before the election; 51 percent did not feel that their training gave them sufficient information to do their job well; and 41 percent observed differences between how they were taught to use the machines and how the machines operated during the election.
o In Maryland, insufficient poll workers, human error and inadequate training contributed to 2006 primary troubles. According to the Baltimore Sun, "Most of [the primary's] worst problems could be traced to the fact that too many of the state's 20,000 election workers didn't show up for work, forgot crucial supplies or couldn't operate the equipment."
* The average disfranchisement rate for blacks is nearly five times higher than that of non-black Americans. In Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, the disfranchisement rate for blacks is more than 17 times higher.
* Nationwide, over 13 percent of black adult males are denied the right to vote, and black men make up 38 percent of the total disfranchised population. Seventeen percent of Latino men will enter prison in their lifetime, compared to only 6 percent of white men, replicating much of the political disfranchisement experienced in the African American community.
* Many poll workers earn less than they would flipping hamburgers. Elections experts despair at the fact that poll workers are sometimes paid less for a grueling day at the polls than what they could earn at a fast food restaurant. The recruitment of highly skilled volunteers suffers, and election administrators are left to resort to civic appeals to fill perennially understaffed polling places.
* Qualified poll workers are least available where most needed-a shortage that is particularly acute in communities of color. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, in the 2004 election, predominantly African-American jurisdictions had a much higher percentage of precincts and polling sites with staffing shortages: 17 percent per polling place, and 13 percent per precinct. Contrasted with the national average, 6 percent of total polling places and 4 percent of precincts lacked the minimum number of required poll workers in the 2004 election.
* The computerization of U.S. elections presents special challenges for an aging and under-trained work force at the polls. The average poll worker age in 2004 was 72. Staffing polling places with tech-savvy volunteers, and properly training existing poll workers on new machines, is essential as states introduce high-tech voting equipment and computerized voter registries. The magnitude of that human resource challenge can be alarming. A survey in Cuyahoga County, Ohio found that 21 percent of poll workers there in the 2006 primary admitted to being "not very comfortable" or "not at all comfortable" with computers.
* Absentee rates are high among those who volunteer to work the polls. For every three poll workers trained, only two actually show up for work on Election Day. In San Joaquin County, California, "dozens" of poll workers went AWOL on Election Day in the June primary, leaving some precincts with workers that couldn't even turn on the new machines because they hadn't attended the required training. Poor pay, long and at times intense hours, and inadequate training help explain high no-show rates on Election Day.
* Current poll worker training is inadequate for the breadth of issues presented on Election Day. State implementation of the federal Help America Vote Act requires conversance with new voting machine technology, provisional balloting, voter identification, and other election mandates. The 2004 election saw poll workers fail to inform voters that they had the right to a provisional ballot, give voters incorrect ballots, and provide incorrect information on how to use a provisional ballot and under what circumstances it would count.
"America's voters, and American democracy, deserve better than this," said Rapoport. "Poll workers should be properly trained, fairly compensated, and hired in adequate numbers to ensure the success of the essential work they do to make elections run smoothly and fairly. Elections are too important to let inadequate investment in poll workers continue."
To find out more about poll workers or other election-related issues, visit archive.demos.org to download the 2006 Challenges to Fair Election briefing paper series or Demos' Election Reform Agenda from the 2006-2007 policy briefing book, Fulfilling America's Promise.