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Toward a Resilient Electoral Process: Retaining Poll Workers, Fighting Misinformation

By Lisa Ryckman  |  August 2, 2022

Misinformation. Disinformation. Malinformation. Obstruction.

For state elections directors, this is the new normal. Four of them shared some of their strategies for navigating today’s rocky elections terrain at a session at the NCSL Legislative Summit on Monday.

“We often immediately think of the ‘security’ of our system, but our electoral process also needs to be resilient, responsive and have a sound foundation to ensure the legitimacy of the process,” says Tammy Patrick, senior elections advisor at the Democracy Fund.

That starts with recruiting and retaining well-trained, well-versed election workers, Patrick says. “We’ve experienced in the last year and continue to see a mass exodus of our election officials, our poll workers, and even secretaries of state,” she says, noting that anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of elections officials have left their jobs. “With that, there’s a loss of institutional knowledge.”

"We’ve experienced in the last year and continue to see a mass exodus of our election officials, our poll workers, and even secretaries of state." — Tammy Patrick, senior elections advisor, the Democracy Fund

Finding and training volunteers is critical. In Minnesota, any eligible voter can be a poll worker, “and we certainly encourage people to do that,” says David Maeda, the state’s election director. As an election administrator at the county level, he often found he could simultaneously recruit poll workers and bolster voter confidence by recommending the role to anyone skeptical of election security.

“They got to see the process not only before Election Day but through Election Day to see all the little things we have in our statutes to secure our elections,” Maeda says, adding that his state has hired 30,000 poll workers and led the nation in voter turnout in 2016, 2018 and 2020.

Nebraska can draft poll workers in the same way most states call for jurors, but Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Bena seconded Maeda’s approach. “If you have an issue with the way your elections are conducted, volunteer to be a poll worker. Because we sure as heck could use it,” Bena says.

All states work to bolster voter confidence in the integrity of elections through methods including testing machines to ensure accurate counts, documenting chain of custody and auditing votes afterward.

“You want to make sure every vote that is cast at the polling place or by mail is accounted for,” says West Virginia Elections Director Brittany Westfall. “If you find an error or something goes wrong, it needs to be documented.”

Battling MDM

Increasingly, elections officials face a flood of mis-, dis- and malinformation, or MDM, Patrick says. Misinformation is false but not created with the intent to cause harm; both disinformation and malinformation are deliberately created to mislead, harm or manipulate.

“Election officials are becoming official MDM combatants. It’s taking up a lot of energy and oxygen,” Patrick says.

In Nebraska, Bena says the secretary of state’s office thoroughly investigated every doubt or allegation raised by voters concerned with election integrity. The results became a PowerPoint posted on the secretary of state’s website.

People in West Virginia wanted to see counting and machine tests and didn’t realize that observation is allowed under state law, Westfall says. “We did some outreach and let voters know you can attend canvass, it is open to the public.”

The Oregon Legislature spent money to investigate MDM and create public service announcements based on the findings, Oregon Elections Director Deborah Scroggin says.

“We did proactive engagement with voters about factual information about vote by mail and its positive features,” she says. “We know that engaging them early and often and flooding the space with trusted information is really the way to go.”

Lisa Ryckman is NCSL’s associate director of communications.

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