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NCSL Town Hall Takeaways: Election Workers and Processes

By Kelley Griffin  |  October 25, 2022

Counties across the country are still recruiting for some of the most important of all election officials: poll workers.

“Poll workers are really essential workers for democracy,” says Amanda Zoch, project manager in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program. “Elections cannot run, and they cannot run smoothly, without them.”

If there aren’t enough poll workers, the processes can get bogged down and voters can be frustrated. —Amanda Zoch, NCSL

Zoch was the featured guest in the recent NCSL Town Hall “Navigating the 2022 Midterm Elections.”

The job doesn’t pay a lot, and it’s hardly a steady income, considering the work happens only during state and federal election periods, Zoch says. And with counties trying to ensure smooth voting at thousands of voting places across the country, these workers make all the difference. 

“They check in voters, they verify identification in states that have voter ID laws, they can help register voters in states that have same-day registration, they can answer questions, you name it,” Zoch says. “So if there aren’t enough poll workers, the processes can get bogged down and voters can be frustrated.” And election officials don’t want to do anything that could discourage voters from exercising their right to cast a ballot. 

Mick Bullock, host of the Town Hall series, recalled how dedicated poll workers were in his hometown of Columbia, Miss. 

“A lady that literally I’ve known my entire life, knows my family and everything, but when I went to vote, she still wanted to see my ID. And I said, ‘Miss Ruby, you’ve known me all my life!’” Bullock says. “They do a wonderful job, and they carry it out with such dignity.” 

Zoch noted that another role, distinct from poll workers, is election observers, or poll watchers. Candidates or parties usually choose these people to watch the proceedings at voting sites.

“The key point is, they are to monitor or observe. They are not supposed to interfere in the election process,” Zoch says. If these monitors see something that looks wrong, they can report it to the election officials at the site. Each state’s laws are different, but most observers are not allowed to directly engage with voters, Zoch says.

Same-Day Voting Can Boost Turnout

According to an NCSL summary, eligible voters in 22 states can register to vote and cast a ballot the same day; in 20 of those states, they can register and vote on Election Day. Zoch says the system has proven to be secure. For instance, states that use it can determine instantaneously if someone has already voted. 

“In terms of value to voters, there’s strong evidence same-day can increase voter turnout,” Zock says. “There’s also little evidence it benefits one party over another or a certain demographic over another.” 

Zoch says it may take a few days before election officials have final tallies.

“We don’t yet know if absentee and mail voting rates will stay at a high level, as they were in 2020, but it is quite likely they will be higher than they were in 2018. That’s still a lot, and that does mean the results can be delayed.”

Zoch notes mail-in ballots simply take more time to process.

Ballots arrive at elections facilities in sealed envelopes. Election workers verify the signatures, then open the envelopes, unfold the ballots and run them through scanning machines. “And some states don’t allow that processing to happen until Election Day,” she says.

“I just counsel patience. That doesn’t mean something bad is going on because it is taking a little longer.”

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