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. For more details about state laws on poll workers, see NCSL’s resource on Election Poll Workers.
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.