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The Canvass | July 2020

July 1, 2020

Poll Worker Shortages and Potential Solutions

With COVID-19, unpredictable weather, cybersecurity threats and partisan tensions, you may be worried about election crises in November. But if you’re an election official, the crisis consuming your attention is not one of those headlining concerns—it’s poll worker shortages. So before you read further, know that election officials need your help. Encourage family, friends, constituents and anyone who is able to serve as a poll worker this year. By spreading the word, you’ll be doing your part to keep our elections running smoothly.

This issue isn’t new; poll workers were hard to find even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In 2016, two-thirds of election jurisdictions struggled to recruit enough poll workers for Election Day, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC). Although many states are encouraging and implementing more vote-by-mail options, poll workers remain an essential part of an efficient Election Day—greeting voters, checking them in, verifying identification in the states that require it, helping voters register in the states with same-day voter registration, answering questions about voting machines and more.

Yet in 2020, the scale of this problem has snowballed, and poll workers may be harder to find than ever before. Wisconsin relied on National Guard members, who received standard training and served in plain clothes, to staff its April 7 primary election. And that’s largely because the people most likely to serve as poll workers—older individuals, often retirees with fewer work or school conflicts than younger folks—are also some of the most at-risk for serious complications from COVID-19. This means that fewer people are signing up to be a poll worker, but also that some poll workers are changing their minds, occasionally at the last minute.

With the U.S. facing a substantial poll worker shortage in November, election officials are searching for innovative and effective recruitment strategies. This month, we highlight a variety of approaches, including youth poll worker programs, professional collaborations, personal incentives and more.

Who Can Become a Poll Worker?

In most states, poll workers must be eligible voters. Most states also require poll workers to reside in the precinct or election jurisdiction in which they will work. Because it can be difficult to find enough poll workers from within limited geographic areas—especially within a single precinct—many states allow workers to come from outside those boundaries when necessary. West Virginia, for example, recently enacted a law allowing poll workers to serve more than one precinct under certain circumstances. The bill passed with unanimous support. 

Youth to the Rescue

With older Americans less likely to serve as poll workers this November, many election officials have pinned their hopes on our country’s youth. In 45 states and the District of Columbia, people under 18 can become poll workers. Although most statewide programs were created before 2010, Alabama recently joined the fold when it passed SB240 in 2019. That same year, Maryland refined its program to allow students as young as 14 to serve as Election Day pages, working two four-hour shifts under the supervision of more experienced poll workers. 

Youth poll workers can be excellent additions to Election Day. Polling places benefit from these digital natives’ willingness to operate electronic poll books and other voting technology, and the young people gain valuable insight into the workings of democracy. This idea is embedded in Idaho’s youth poll worker statute, which states that the program’s purpose is “to provide for a greater awareness of the election process, the rights and responsibilities of voters and the importance of participating in the electoral process, as well as to provide additional members of precinct boards.” The hope is that these young poll workers’ experience will spur them to become lifelong voters.

While many states have expanded their laws to allow youth to work as poll workers, a number of these programs are organized at the local level and may be run in conjunction with high schools or community youth programs.

In 2016, the EAC announced the winners of its competition for recruiting, training and retaining election workers. Of the five programs chosen, one was a youth poll worker program: Hamilton County, Ohio’s Youth at the Booth. Through the program, students attend a four-hour training, work before and on Election Day, earn $181.50 and are encouraged to use #youthatthebooth on social media. By pairing “technological savvy high school students” with more experienced election officials, the EAC applauded the program for creating a “perfect combination of technological comfort and experience at the polls.”

Minneapolis won the same award in 2017 for its Student Election Judge Program, which aimed to recruit bilingual, technology-adept and ethnically diverse youth poll workers, while helping those youth build civic skills and develop deeper connections to their community.

Both programs offer adaptable models for jurisdictions across the country and attest to the value of youth poll workers. And while these examples focus on high school students, don’t overlook community college and university students, whose flexible schedules and technological proficiency also make them great candidates for the job (see, for example the City University of New York’s Poll-Worker Initiative).

States Increase Outreach, Launch New Collaborations

Poll worker recruitment has often relied on word-of-mouth and voter outreach. Those efforts have ramped up in light of the COVID-19 pandemic with states implementing new messaging and additional incentives. Michigan recently launched a new program, Democracy MVP, which celebrates election workers as “the Most Valuable Players of our democracy, ensuring free and fair elections for all.” In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis promised state employees administrative leave if they choose to serve as poll workers and encouraged counties and cities to do the same.

Some election administrators are also turning to outside groups to help recruit workers In Nebraska, the Election Division partnered with the Nebraska State Bar Association, the Nebraska Board of Public Accountancy and the Nebraska Society of Certified Public Accountants Society to ensure sufficient staffing at all polling locations. The attorneys and CPAs who serve as poll workers will receive 1.5 hours of free continuing education credits. Realtors in West Virginia have a similar opportunity. Through the West Virginia Real Estate Commission, any agent, broker or associate broker who serves as a poll worker will earn seven hours of continuing education credit. 

Alaskan election officials are calling on nonprofit organizations for poll staffing support. Through the state’s Adopt-A-Precinct program, a nonprofit can agree to staff a particular precinct and, in turn, earn up to $1,475 for the organization.

Partnerships like these are mutually beneficial. States can reach new populations of willing and eager poll workers, and the workers receive educational and financial perks for their civic efforts.

Making Poll Work Appealing and Safe

Some people may be more inclined to work at polling locations if election officials provide safety equipment and take other precautions. Indeed, most states and local jurisdictions have taken steps to protect poll workers during primary elections by providing sanitation and disinfectant equipment at polling places, supplying workers with personal protection equipment (PPE) and/or enforcing social distancing protocols. One state has passed legislation on this issue. Minnesota enacted HF3429, which appropriates funds to purchase cleaning supplies, prepare new polling locations and educate voters on proper social distancing guidelines. Other states, like Arizona, have advertised that poll workers will receive PPE and other protections on their main poll worker webpages. Publicizing these safety measures may allay the fears of some potential workers.

According to the EAC, other incentives such as increasing poll worker pay or allowing split shifts may also help states recruit more poll workers. In some states, these factors are governed by statute, but in others, local election officials may have more leeway.

Poll worker pay varies, though it may often be less than or equal to minimum wage. Thirteen states have a minimum daily stipend of less than $100, and 11 states require poll workers to be paid the state or federal minimum wage. In 18 states, poll worker pay is set by local election officials, and thus may be easier to increase.

COVID-19 has caused record unemployment numbers, which means many people are seeking work. Although poll work is only temporary, election administrators may wish to appeal directly to people suffering unemployment. If furloughed employees can be compensated for serving as poll workers without losing unemployment benefits, the EAC recommends that information be included in recruitment messaging, as well. For some people, however, compensation may actually disincentivize participation because the pay interferes with their pensions. To avoid this conflict, 10 states now allow poll workers to serve as unpaid volunteers.

A poll worker’s day can be long, beginning before sunrise and lasting through the final vote and cleanup. In some cases, that makes for a grueling 15-hour workday. Splitting a shift requires more poll workers, but it may make the job more appealing or more feasible for many people. Eighteen states allow workers to split shifts; in Rhode Island, for example, election supervisors can work a half-day at half pay.

A Nationwide Approach

“Given what we’ve already seen during the primary season, it’s plainly obvious that there will be a tremendous need for people to step up to work at their local polling locations in November,” says Robert Brandon, President of Fair Elections Center. Work Elections, a nonpartisan project developed by Fair Elections Center, seeks to address this issue by making it easier than ever to connect interested poll workers with local election officials. The project—the first of its kind—has compiled poll worker requirements and applications for jurisdictions in all 47 states (the missing states conduct elections by mail) in an easy-to-use, searchable database.

While this resource doesn’t replace the outreach conducted by state and local election officials, it can make it easier to get applications into the hands of potential poll workers. So spread the word, and recruit your friends, family and neighbors. Our elections depend on it.

Legislative Action Bulletin

As of June 30:

  • Two legislatures continue to have their sessions postponed due to COVID-19: Illinois and Nebraska.
  • Seven states are in regular session, along with D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The California Senate and Pennsylvania Senate are also in session.
  • One state is in special session: Louisiana.
  • Four states do not meet in 2020: Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas.

More legislatures have begun to return to work after COVID-related recesses, albeit many with shortened time frames and limited agendas. Budget crises have taken up much legislative attention, but lawmakers are still focused on elections, particularly on absentee and mail voting. A small number of legislatures have turned their attention to legislative oversight of emergency executive powers.

Legislative Action on Absentee and Mail Voting

California enacted legislation that requires county election officials to mail a ballot to every registered active voter for the 2020 general election only. The legislation maintains opportunities for in-person voting.

Legislation awaiting the governor’s signature in Delaware would require the state to send applications for vote-by-mail ballots to all registered voters. The bill applies to all elections in 2020.

Illinois enacted legislation that requires election officials to send applications for vote-by-mail ballots to all recent voters in the state for the 2020 general election. The legislation also expands early voting hours, changes signature verification processes and makes Election Day a state holiday.

Minnesota enacted legislation that makes temporary changes, including requiring absentee ballot processing to begin 14 days prior to an election and authorizing candidates to file certain documents electronically. The bill also appropriates federal money from the 2019 HAVA and 2020 CARES Act grants.

Legislation passed by the New Hampshire Senate would enact “no-excuse” absentee voting in the state and implement online voter registration. The bill also would require the state to join the Electronic Registration Information Center.

North Carolina enacted legislation reducing the number of required witnesses for absentee ballots from two to one and allowing the submission of absentee applications by email or fax, among other changes. These changes only apply to the 2020 general election.

Legislative Action on the Oversight of Emergency Powers

Iowa enacted legislation requiring legislative approval of any action by the state election authority to alter the conduct of an election using emergency powers.

Legislation introduced in Georgia would prohibit state executives from proactively sending out absentee ballot applications to voters. The bill also would require the Secretary of State to establish an online portal for absentee ballot requests, a trending topic.

Legislation passed by the House in Ohio would restrict the emergency powers of state executives to alter the time, place or manner of an election as prescribed by state law. The bill would also prohibit the secretary of state from providing prepaid postage on absentee ballots or applications.

From the Chair

This month we spoke with Montana Senator Dee Brown (R). She represents Senate District 2, which is located in northwestern Montana, right by Glacier National Park. The district has a population of just under 20,000 people, and Brown has held the seat since 2012.

As chair of the Senate Committee on State Administration, what have your priorities been in terms of election administration?

My goal as chair has always been ensuring that everyone gets a fair hearing and that the pros and cons are done so nobody gets upset. The major thing we need to do in committees, especially with elections, is acknowledge differences of thought and be respectful. In general, the legislation that gets through my committee reflects the views of Main Street Montana.

Montana is a geographically large state and has used a fair amount of mail voting in the past. What are your thoughts on current trends towards more mail voting?

I personally have enjoyed absentee voting for years. But I know that a lot of my veterans and older constituents do not like absentee ballots. They like to go to the polls, stand in line, chat with neighbors and make their “x” in a secret booth. There’s a give and take with more mail voting.

Because of COVID-19, Montana did use all-mail ballots in the primaries. Some constituents were not very happy, though. The logic is that if you can stand in line six feet apart at a grocery store, you can do that at the ballot box.

Voting for Native Americans has been a big topic, especially in the west. Could you talk about how Montana has addressed that issue?

Voting by mail is a real problem on reservations across the nation—multiple families may be sharing a home, many do not have P.O. boxes or traditional mailing addresses. That creates a problem when it comes to voting. Our secretary of state has set up remote voting locations on reservations throughout Montana, and it has really helped the native populations. They can cast a ballot much closer to where they live, and they don’t need to travel miles and miles to have their voices heard.

I believe you worked with NCSL on voting for people with disabilities a few years ago. Could you say a little about where the state is on that now?

That’s a good question. About two to three years ago, a bunch of us had concerns about voting access for people with disabilities, and we’re still working on it. Right now, in our interim State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs (SAVA) committee, we are visiting with the disability community about how we can make it easier for people with disabilities to cast their ballots.

We will be crafting a bill with the disabled community to find a solution that works for all of us. We are constrained by money—new voting machines cost money—but we want to make sure that the disabled community is not disenfranchised and that their ballots look like everyone else’s ballots. We plan to have a bill by the end of November, which will be brought to the 2021 legislative bodies.

As you complete your tenure in the Montana Senate, what election accomplishments are you most proud of?

When I was the interim chairman of the SAVA committee in 2013-4, we tackled all of the election laws on the books in the Montana Code Annotated. There were so many contradictions; we needed some consistency. It was a huge undertaking. It took one and a half years to clean up the code, and then my vice chair, Bryce Bennet, carried the bill in the House. I did a lot of lobbying with my caucus in the House, helping them understand what the bill was about and why we needed it. Once it got through the House, I carried it in the Senate floor. The bill was 180 pages, and people worried that they couldn’t trust such a long bill, but I felt in my heart that this was something we needed to do. Was it perfect? No, we had to make a few changes later, but in general the whole revision has been good. It modernized our laws.

That bill didn’t hit the front pages of the newspaper—it wasn’t sensational enough. The grunt work of the legislative body is to produce good things, to make our laws easier for everyone to understand. I was proud to be a part of that committee.

Another bill I’m especially proud of—a hard lift too—is SB124, which allows overseas voting if you have a Common Access Card (CAC) card. To get the bill passed, we had to talk about CAC cards, how they work, and how secure they are. Other legislators were concerned we were going to let anyone overseas vote, so I had a Major General come in and show his CAC card and explain how it worked. Then our secretary of state worried about the cost of programming, but I had my staffer find free downloadable software. Usually we say “death by fiscal note,” but this bill couldn’t die that way, and we were able to convince other legislators that it was the right thing to do. Actually, if every registered voter had a CAC card, we wouldn’t have to worry as much about election security. This change will take a few years to be implemented, but it will really make voting easier for people serving in the military and the people supporting them overseas.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

"How We Vote"

“How We Vote: Innovation in American Elections,” by Kathleen Hale and Mitchell Brown, captures the spirit of elections administration this year—innovation. Not that Hale and Brown, who direct the Election Administration Initiative at Auburn University, knew when they were writing the book that election officials in 2020 would find themselves adding “public health protector” to their many other roles. Instead, “How We Vote” looks at the numerous innovations that have transformed the heterogeneous elections world in recent decades: technology for voter registration and voting; the rise of “convenience” voting (a term used to cover both early voting and absentee, or mail, voting); and new ways to verify election results and measure success in this key public function.

When the authors write, “What is possible in one place at one time and under a particular political configuration may not be possible in another,” they hit the nail on the head. U.S. elections vary not only from state to state, but also from county to county. Decision-makers must see their choices in context and not be drawn to the new, shiny object.

The book is not: partisan, inflammatory, prescriptive or keyed to the day’s crises.

The book is: well-researched, grounded in lessons from high-profile elections and a relief to read in these fiery times.

Worth Noting

NBA Stars Form New Voting Group

A group of current and former athletes, led by NBA star LeBron James, have formed a new group called “More Than a Vote.” The organization aims to increase voter participation among African Americans through voter registration drives and other efforts.

Florida County Uses Food Orders to Encourage Voting

In Hillsborough County, Fla., a new voter education campaign is using takeout and delivery food orders to let voters know about their options for upcoming elections. Restaurant partners were provided flyers to include with food orders; the flyers tell voters “Request Vote by Mail and We’ll Deliver the Election to You.” Hillsborough County also has a Get Out the Vote toolkit available to assist voters.

Don’t Expect Election Results to Be Available Overnight

As more states expand absentee and mail voting, and more voters choose to use those options to vote outside the traditional polling place, experts and election officials are urging the media and voters to adjust their expectations for when election results will be available. In many states, mail ballots take more time to process than in-person votes, and with historic levels of mail voting expected in November, this increases the chance that counting of ballots will continue past election night. This scenario is already playing out in recent primary elections across the states.

Number of Voter Registrations Declines Sharply in First Half of 2020

With COVID-19 sweeping the nation, many states are seeing a significant decrease in the number of new voter registrations. The Center for Election Innovation & Research has compiled data comparing current numbers to voter registration statistics from 2016, and the difference is stark. While data from January 2020 actually showed an increase in registrations over 2016, by April all 13 states studied as part of the report showed a decrease. The drop is likely due to a lack of third-party registration drives and organizers out knocking doors, as well as government offices where people often register being shut down.

Monthly Cybersecurity Update

The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has released the first of six planned Cyber Essentials Toolkits. The initial toolkit focuses on what organizational leaders can do to ensure their offices are prepared to defend against cyber threats, through strategy and investment.

From the NCSL Elections Team

The Elections Team remains homebound, but we continue to track election changes and are available to assist our members with any of their needs. We are excited to welcome three new faces to our team this summer. Emily Huang and Claudia Kania both joined NCSL as summer election interns. Emily is an undergraduate at CU Boulder, and Claudia is an undergraduate at Stanford University. We also are joined by Anders Miller, a summer law clerk and rising third-year law student at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

Next month, we will begin holding Office Hours—a virtual meeting for NCSL’s members to speak with our team on any topic they would like. If we get advance requests, we will be sure to have found the answer or found an expert.  We will be “in” the second and fourth Mondays of the month, beginning, July 13, at 3 pm ET/1 pm MT. To join, just follow this link.

Wendy Underhill, Brian Hinkle and Mandy Zoch

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