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Ballot errors, ballots in the mail, voter inquiries, voting machine preparations, polling place locations, and poll workers

Bonnie E. Glaser, former research specialist, Election Administration Research Center | November 5, 2012

Ballot errors, ballots in the mail, voter inquiries, voting machine preparations, polling place locations, and poll workers.  In the weeks before the Election, these are some of the concerns of local election officials all over the country, and particularly in California.  At the Election Administration Research Center we follow the activities of the counties’ Registrars of Voters who are working long hours to put on a successful election.   I am going to focus on the topic of poll workers and what that entails for these hard working officials.

Hiring:  Approximately 100,000 poll workers are needed for Election Day in California.  For a neighborhood of somewhere between 700-1000 registered voters (a precinct), a county needs to hire at least 4 people to staff the polling place where these residents vote.  [This occurs in all but 2 of the state’s 58 counties; these two counties have so few registered voters that polling places and poll workers are not needed.] One of the four poll workers assigned to a precinct must be an ‘inspector’ who is in charge of the team and therefore has an extra level of responsibility. County election officials start recruiting around August and may have a full staff early on, but by the few weeks before the Election many workers have cancelled and must be replaced by individuals on a back up list. Who will be on the teams of 4 is always somewhat in flux. And the county needs even more individuals to stand-by on Election morning to fill-in for no-shows and throughout the day to replace a few problem workers; therefore the county must also recruit individuals who can tolerate not knowing if they will be working or not.  Those that do work on Election Day receive, a few weeks after the election, a modest stipend ($80-$150).

Training:  In the 56 counties, poll workers were being trained throughout October with many of the last classes being held up to Saturday November 3. Classes vary from 1-3 hours and are offered 1-4 times per day.  By state law, inspectors must attend in-class training, and the counties vary on their training requirements for the other workers.  In some cases the counties have online training to supplement in-class training or to substitute for class training for non-inspectors. Typically classes are divided between inspectors and non-inspectors, and sometime also between returning workers and new workers.  Many counties assign workers to specific training classes, but others allow workers to drop-in to any class that is convenient to them.  The classes may be held around the county or they may be only held in the central elections office, and there is variation in whether classes are held during the business day and/or weekends and evenings. Counties also vary in whether they hire people to hold training classes or whether they use in-house employees to train workers. In the case where they do the training in-house, there is typically one or two trainers and the primary trainer is sometimes the Registrar himself/herself.   There are multiple objectives for training, including conveying how to conduct procedures, providing background and context for those procedures, how to use reference materials or where to go with questions, and general orientation of the worker to the job and its mission.  The default, especially in a 60 minute class, is to go over the procedures according to the timeline of Election Day.  If the chief election official conducts the classes, then he or she can do public relations with the community while also explaining the nuts and bolts of Election Day.  Teaching the procedures is a major challenge, because it is hard for the individuals (who vary greatly in learning style and education level) to absorb in an hour or two the level of detailed knowledge required; therefore, on-the-job training and user-friendly references tools are critical for poll workers to have on Election Day.

So as you go to the polls on Election Day, be kind to and tolerant of these individuals who are spending up to 15 hours of one day helping to ensure you can privately and securely cast your vote, and marvel at the local election officials who made their presence happen.