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Not Just a Bunch of Little Old Ladies: The Importance of Becoming a Pollworker PDF  | Print |  Email
By Marybeth Kuznik, VotePA   
October 31, 2005
If you ever voted at a polling place you probably met and talked to at least one pollworker when you signed in to vote. You may have wondered, who are these people? How do they get chosen for the job? What it is that these folks really do while sitting around the voting room? You may have even had a passing thought about what it would be like to become one of these officials.

Pollworkers are found everywhere. Even in Oregon, where they vote by mail, citizens still assist on election boards and help process ballots as they come in. Different states may call them Judge of Elections, Inspector of Elections, Clerk, Machine Operator, even Deputy in some areas, but all these workers are sworn officials who are in our polling places to operate and control our elections on the local level. Pollworkers have incredible access to the entire voting process, and they are an important component of our electoral system.

One official definition of the pollworker position reads, “Precinct level election official who facilitates the voting process at a polling location on the day of an election.” Indeed, pollworkers are the people who open and close polls, receive election supplies from the county and return election results to the county, set up voting machines, handle ballots and poll books, and help voters understand the process of voting.

Some people confuse pollworkers with pollwatchers (people who observe the electoral process in and around the poll, often representing a candidate or party), and sometimes even with pollsters (people who take polls, such as exit polls.) These are all important positions, and all contribute greatly to our voting process, but in most jurisdictions only the pollworker is a true public election official.

Pollworkers are gatekeepers. A pollworker is the last human being the voter encounters before he or she enters the voting booth to cast a vote. In many cases a pollworker is the only “official” human representative of the electoral system ever met by the average individual voter.

Pollworkers set the tone; good, committed pollworkers who truly care about voting can enthuse their voters about elections as well. And surly, complaining people working the polls can definitely discourage others from making the effort to exercise that precious right to vote. Worse yet, untrained or uncaring pollworkers can accidentally disenfranchise voters by failing to completely follow election codes. Last November, when faced with long lines, failing machines, and no precedent training to fall back on, harried election judges in some communities made bizarre decisions that contributed to the national problem of lost votes. And sadly, reports have even surfaced of nefarious pollworkers who have deliberately broken election laws.

One of the biggest problems in our electoral system is that our country faces a great shortage of qualified, trained workers to fill these polling place positions. According to an article published in USA Today right before the 2004 election, there were about 1.4 million poll workers in the United States to service approximately 200,000 polling places. But 500,000 additional pollworkers were needed and could have been used if they had been available last November. Would it have made a difference?

Pollworkers were mentioned over 108 times just in the first day of testimony at the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform hearing last April. Some of the presenters to Carter-Baker spoke very negatively of pollworkers; others mentioned that as a group they are generally poorly trained. Along with recommendations for more training, the call to the Commission was for better, brighter, and younger pollworkers; a new generation to deal with the intricacies of a new generation of computerized voting machines.

In the original pre-2004 election version of his “Mosh” video, Eminem leads a band of angry, hoodie-clad young people up the steps of a government building. Throwing off his hoodie and emerging dressed in a suit, Eminem bursts through the building door, stomps to a table, and signs in -- to vote. And at the voting table sits everyone’s typical vision of a pollworker, a sweet, smiling older lady with gray hair in a bun.

Eminem is not really off in his depiction. The EAC estimates the average pollworker is 72. A survey in the District of Columbia put their average pollworker age at 80. My mother is still doing it, and she will be 88 in March. And she’s good. Pollworking is one area where the WWII Generation, often called the world’s greatest, is still serving their country and for the most part serving it well. But how long can these most senior of our citizens keep doing this?

To address this whole problem, HAVA does provide direction and money for increased pollworker training. But first there have to be people available to be trained. Pollworkers are desperately needed in just about every state and county.

With the interest shown these days in politics and government, why the short supply of pollworkers? Why do we leave this important position to chance, to the oldest among us, or worst of all, leave the position empty?

One reason may be that in today’s society there is pressure from jobs, family, and other parts of modern life that makes fewer and fewer people available for the long hours required of pollworkers, even if it is only two days per year. Our elections fall generally on Tuesdays, historically a great day for colonial farmers, but now one of the busiest days of the modern workweek. Reports of employees being demoted or even fired because they took time off to work the polls are not uncommon. Some states have actually proposed leave of absence and job protection laws for pollworkers.

The positions held by pollworkers are usually paid, but in numerous areas the pay is incredibly low for the amount of work involved. And many people simply will not (cannot afford to) work even one day for sub minimum wage.

Sadly, many people were demoralized by the 2000-2004 elections and say they are giving up on voting in general. Such discouraged voters are unlikely to work the polls. Others just don’t believe there is a problem and are skeptical that more pollworkers are really needed. Most people are unaware of how urgent it is to have good Inspectors, Judges, and Clerks for elections and trust that “someone” will always be there and take care of what is needed in our polls.

A solution proposed by some activists would have pollworkers being drawn at random for “election duty” just as we draw our jury duty pools now. But unlike jury duty, pollworking is a more complex process that requires substantial training. There are many steps that must be accurately followed during an election, or votes can be lost. The people who are working as Inspectors, Judges, or Clerks must truly want to be there and must take great care to do things the right way or accuracy will suffer.

The debate and the pollworker shortage go on. Our Election Integrity movement can and must help. Just as the Election Integrity activists are leading the call for accurate counting, I believe we should lead the way in this area with as many of us as possible becoming enthusiastic and committed pollworkers.

So what are the job requirements pollworker do and how do you become one?

Generally, the laws in each state provide for pollworkers and specify what the positions are, who may serve, and how the workers are selected. In most areas, prospective pollworkers sign up with the county to work in a precinct. Often this must be the precinct where you vote, but this is changing in many states due to the shortage of people to work this position.

In some states, pollworkers are appointed and serve “at the pleasure” of the county election director, subject to hire and fire with or without cause. In other words, if they don’t like you, your politics (maybe because you are an election activist?), or their mother-in-law wants the job you are out. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, publicly elect their Judges and Inspectors of Elections; like any candidate I had to obtain signatures on a petition to run for my office. But even in Pennsylvania we have many appointed pollworkers (and vacancies) in open positions where no one was willing to run.

The various titles such as Clerk, Inspector, Judge, Machine Operator, Deputy, and Student pollworker have different requirements depending on the state. For example in Pennsylvania, the Judge of Elections is the leader of the precinct Board, responsible for major decisions and set up of the polling place. In California, those duties go to the Inspector. In Florida, the Deputy sets up the poll. In some areas, Clerks are “low man” and serve the Judge and Inspectors; other states the Clerk is the big boss.

Many states now provide for student pollworkers, where high school age people (usually Juniors or Seniors) can become involved in the electoral process. In some areas student pollworkers may only perform limited duties and are prohibited from making decisions about election laws or actually counting votes.

The requirements to become a pollworker are fairly similar in most states. Usually you have to be a registered voter in the county or state where you will serve, who can speak and read English. In many areas the ability to use a second language is a huge plus. Student pollworkers often have additional requirements such as a certain grade average in school, or permission from their school principal.

Pay for pollworkers varies wildly, from nothing (or nearly so) to $150 per day or more. Few pollworkers do this job for the money; it is more often about helping our Democracy

Training for pollworkers can be very short or can be quite complex and paid or unpaid depending on the state and county. Training usually involves learning basic election law and how to operate the machines or voting system you will be using.  It includes the procedure for opening and closing polls, tabulating, recording, provisional ballots, handling complaints or disturbances, and other common activities and problems that are encountered on election days.

Election days for the average pollworker are long, very long. The day usually starts with a half-hour to an hour set-up time before poll opening. Many states do not allow “shifts” so each pollworker who is sworn in at the beginning of the day must be there for the full length of time the polls are open plus all the time after needed after closing to get the machines packed up and results prepared to take to the county. In some areas this might even include hand-counting or other tabulating after closing.

A day at the polls usually begins with workers taking the oath of office. Pollworkers swear to adhere to all election laws, that they will perform their duties honestly to the best of their abilities, and that they have no bets or fiduciary interest on the outcome of the election! Next is set-up of the tables and machines; sometimes furniture or machines must be moved about to facilitate a good layout for voters. Every detail should be correct; for example in Pennsylvania every polling room must have a United States flag. HAVA and other laws require the posting of multiple notices and most states require a sample ballot to be hung on the wall or otherwise available.

Once the machines are opened up, they need to be zeroed. Depending on the system, this means that a “zero tape” is printed, or the counters must be checked. Everything must register zero. The public counter (record of voters who voter on that machine that day) must say zero, and the “protective counter” (a sort of lifetime count of votes cast on that machine) is also recorded but this number is never zero. There are many paper forms to be signed and more sworn statements to make. We often are only half joking when we say that being a pollworker causes one to do a lot of swearing!

At the appointed hour, the doors are opened and -- let the voting begin!

From this point on pollworkers stay all day do their job. This may include handling the poll book and signing in voters, machine work (depending on the system) such as pushing buttons or preparing cards to set up the machine for each voter, demonstrating machines and training voters, dealing with pollwatchers, and avoiding voter intimidation by anyone. Pollworkers need to keep the poll clean and free of campaign materials. Even little “influences” (such as using pens provided by candidates with their names them) must be avoided.

Pollworkers must be incredibly non-partisan. You may have to nearly bite your tongue off a few times, but you must never let a voter know that you are for or against any candidate or party.

If you become a pollworker, be ready to answer lots of questions at elections. Voters ask – and do – really dumb things sometimes. Don’t laugh or make fun (just remember the best stories so you can share them with the rest of us later, names and IDs changed of course!)

Be ready to go crazy with work or be bored out of your mind, perhaps both on the same day. The first hour or two, last hour or two, and times right after work hours are the busiest. Bring lunch and dinner, because in most places you aren’t allowed to leave. Snacks and a coffee pot are good too.

When it is time to close the polls, every voter in line by closing time gets to vote in most states. Laws vary, but in most jurisdictions, when all voting is done pollworkers close the door. Space should be made for any pollwatchers to observe as the workers lock out the machines from further voting, record public and protective counters, and prepare return sheets or printouts (which involves more signing and sworn statements.) In some systems, memory cards or cartridges are removed for transport. The workers collect all materials as per county instruction, and take to their county as provided by their law.

At this point, your day as a pollworker is over. If you are like most of us, you will be dog-tired, but exhilarated that you had a good day and got this chance to share in our Democracy.

I hope that you can see that being a pollworker is not just a chance for little old ladies to sit all day and chitchat. We marginalize the job of the pollworker at our own peril. All our campaigning, all our Get Out The Vote activities, even our work to get accurate and accessible voting systems may be for naught if our elections are run improperly in our local polling places.

We need strong pollworkers who want to “do it right”, who believe in everyone’s right to vote, and who want to make a difference. Trained, computer-savvy pollworkers can do much to spot anomalies, report problems, gather data, and perhaps even become long-term resources and partners for full-time county and state election workers. Election Integrity activists are perfect candidates.

As an activist, each of us should consider it his or her absolute duty to be somewhere, working in some capacity, every election day. Being a pollworker is a great way to fulfill that duty.

Marybeth Kuznik has served as a pollworker since before the first Clinton-Gore election in 1992. She is on the ballot next week for a new term as Inspector of Elections in Ward 4, Precinct 2, Penn Township in Westmoreland County, PA. Marybeth salutes all her fellow activists who have already heeded the call and work for election integrity as past or present pollworkers. She has more information on and the beginnings of a national pollworker site at
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