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We Want You…to be a Poll Worker

In an election year, the answer to “what can I do?” can be gratifyingly immediate…

  • Renée Paradis
July 3, 2008

When you work in elec­tion reform, often at the end of a panel discus­sion or a present­a­tion you’ve just given, you’ll look out at a sea of people you’ve thor­oughly disheartened as to the health of the repub­lic, one of whom has just asked you, “But what can I do to make a differ­ence?”  Usually, the answer is frus­trat­ingly remote – join an advocacy group, lobby your elec­ted repres­ent­at­ives, try to draw atten­tion to the chron­ic­ally ignored and un-sexy topic of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion.  But in an elec­tion year like this one, the answer can become grat­i­fy­ingly imme­di­ate: Go become a poll worker.  Poll work­ers are those over­worked, under­trained, usually some­what harried people who check you in at the polls on Elec­tion Day and shep­herd you through the voting process.  Poll work­ers usually have to be registered voters in the county they’re serving in, and in many states, they must also be registered in one of the two major parties.  It’s hard to find qual­i­fied, dynamic poll work­ers, espe­cially given how little most states pay for the day’s work, and harder still to adequately train them in elec­tion law and proced­ures.  Poll work­ers have to wake up at five in the morn­ing to open the polls, stay at the polls late to process ballots, giving up an entire day, and spend­ing a large part of that day being yelled at by disgruntled voters.  But without poll work­ers noth­ing in the system works: Even if regis­tra­tion lists were perfectly managed, and voting machines 100% accur­ate, poorly trained poll work­ers can lose hundreds of votes in a single precinct. 

In the long term, we need to figure out a way to recruit good poll work­ers.  Current innov­a­tions include having high school students, many of whom would ordin­ar­ily be too young to serve as poll work­ers, staff the polls as part of their civics classes.  We’d like to see other innov­a­tions:  states could consider exempt­ing poll work­ers from jury service for some period of time-surely many of you would rather serve one day than possibly get put on a weeks-long trial.  Another innov­a­tion might be offer­ing continu­ing legal educa­tion (CLE) credit for service at the polls.  (Lawyers usually need to take some sort of continu­ing educa­tion classes to main­tain their bar license, but often altern­at­ive activ­it­ies such as judging moot courts or writ­ing articles will count for credit as well.)  Like jury service, CLE require­ments can be a hassle to fulfill, and work­ing the polls might be a nice altern­at­ive.  In the credit frame­work, colleges and univer­sit­ies could also offer credit for work at the polls, either course credit or towards community service require­ments.

But in the short term, anyone inter­ested in elect­oral reform should consider taking that interest and dynam­ism and work­ing the polls this fall.  In a national elec­tion year, it can often seem like any real affect on the system or the outcome is out of the grasp of just one person, but there is some­thing you can do to make real change now.  Go become a poll worker.