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Election Workers Strive to Keep Democracy Working Smoothly

State and local officials, poll workers and observers ensure safe, accurate and trustworthy elections.

By Camilla Rodriguez Guzman and Katie King  |  April 9, 2024

“Election administration is the track, and you have to make sure the track is smooth so the candidates can run a fair race. It’s not about politics. It’s about good governance and customer service.”

—Benjamin Hovland, U.S. Election Assistance Commission

The election workforce—local election officials and poll workers—is on the ground making sure the metaphoric track is ready for the race. The roles within the workforce have changed in recent decades, but these public servants remain the faces of democracy, ensuring safe, accurate and trustworthy elections.

Election Officials

At the state and local levels, administering elections is a full-time job. State election officials have a role in maintaining the statewide voter registration database and ensuring state election laws are implemented, while local officials run the actual elections. These officials are responsible for ensuring that equipment is functioning properly and that poll workers are recruited and trained so Election Day runs smoothly.

“(Before) 2000, election officials were essentially wedding planners or party planners who only needed to figure out how many people were going to show up,” Hovland says in a recent NCSL elections webinar, the first in four-part series on election policy and practice. “The Help America Vote Act introduced a lot of technology to make election administration more sophisticated. In the post-2016 world with cybersecurity threats, physical threats and dealing with mis- and disinformation, the job requires more specialization.”

As the occupation has become more professional, election officials seek out specialized training programs offered through universities and election-related associations.

Poll Workers

As front-line staff, poll workers support voters in casting ballots, aid voters with disabilities, and ensure everything goes well on Election Day. “Poll workers are the customer service face of our democracy,” Hovland says.

Poll worker staffing usually comprises an equal number of poll workers from each major party. They oversee the process of checks and balances and the security measures at polling places. “At a time when so many Americans have lost faith in the process, I hear stories from election officials where people with doubts have volunteered to be poll workers and are now the biggest advocates for the office and for the safeguards that are in place,” Hovland says.

The EAC has set Aug. 1 as National Poll Worker Recruitment Day to encourage people to participate and serve their communities as poll workers.

Election Observers

Election observers or poll watchers are citizens, candidates and designees from parties or organizations who observe the election process. They provide an extra layer of transparency and can provide suggestions for improving processes. Laws governing election observers vary considerably by state.

The U.S. is part of treaties that allow international election observers to observe U.S. elections and U.S. citizens to observe abroad.

“There are often lessons seeing how another country runs their elections,” Hovland says. “It is a valuable interchange of information and ideas and allows us to show others that we’re proud of our elections.”

Ensuring Safety, Recruiting Workers

Over time, there has been an increase in threats and harassment directed toward election officials, staff and poll workers. “Some states have considered additional legal protections to amend their criminal code to ensure there are tools for prosecutors to hold those who threaten election officials accountable,” Hovland says.

Since 2020, 18 states have passed laws to protect election officials and poll workers, including criminalizing offenses against election workers, allowing election officials to be included in address confidentiality programs, and requiring de-escalation training for election workers.

Due to the intimidation poll workers have received, recruitment numbers have been low for many states. To encourage people to become poll workers, state legislatures have passed bills increasing poll worker pay, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to serve and creating a path for charitable organizations to adopt polling places and receive the payment as a fundraiser.

Despite the obstacles election staff have faced throughout the years, Hovland says, “Our election officials are doing amazing work meeting the demands of all of these challenges, and you have to give them credit for that.”

This webinar was the first in a series of four, hosted in partnership with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission addressing election policy and practice. The next webinar is on post-election processes with Commissioner Donald Palmer on Friday, April 12, at 2 p.m. ET. Register here.

Watch the first webinar again.

View the rest of the series here.

Camilla Rodriguez Guzman is a policy analyst in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

Katie King is a policy associate in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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