BY DRU SEFTON
Oct. 6, 2006
An unprecedented recruitment effort for those ever-elusive election workers has produced pledges from 4,000 volunteers nationwide for the Nov. 7 voting.
The drive also may signal the advent of a new species of poll worker -- more activist than neutral guide or observer.
Many of the workers recruited so far by Pollworkers for Democracy through its Web site (pollworkersfordemocracy.org) are younger, technologically savvy and have signed up to "bring real solutions and transparency to the American election process" and "be in a unique position to identify and stop voter intimidation" at the polls.
Volunteers promise to complete a post-election worker survey, part of the nationwide Election Incident Reporting System, which supports election reform.
The Pollworkers for Democracy Web site details just how these poll workers are different: They are "on a bit of a stealth mission to observe and report back afterward any breakdowns, vote switching or other election integrity issues they see occur."
It's the work of two groups, Mainstreet Moms and VoteTrustUSA, and a telephone and credit-card firm called Working Assets that says it funds "progressive causes."
Finding workers to staff polls has been a growing problem. Traditionally, senior citizens help out -- but the pool of poll veterans is literally dying out and isn't being replenished in sufficient numbers by new retirees, officials say. Other longtime volunteers are now reluctant as complex electronic voting machines become commonplace.
Mainstreet Moms co-founder Megan Matson said the main thrust of the current campaign is to "help offset this shortage of poll workers, first and foremost. They are paid, trained, official poll workers. That said, they can also be a valuable part of the solution if they are also taking note of what goes right and wrong."
In the "wrong" category would be glitches in voting similar to what took place during recent elections.
Matson said research has shown that "a lot of that chaos has gone in one direction" -- favoring Republican candidates.
Such allegations sparked creation of several election watchdog groups.
They include VoteTrustUSA (votetrustusa.org), a grass-roots network advocating "secure, accurate and transparent elections," and the Verified Voting Foundation (verifiedvotingfoundation.org), which developed the Election Incident Reporting System, what it calls "a national database of election mishaps of all kinds." The foundation also advocates for a paper trail to verify votes cast on electronic machines.
Poll workers oversee those machines and much more. They open and close polls, sign in voters, hand out and collect ballots, and tally vote totals.
"Sometimes they even fix wobbly legs on voting machines. They end up doing a lot of things," said Sue Baldwin, director of records for Broward County, Fla., and a board member of the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks.
David Orr, another member, is clerk for the portion of Cook County, Ill., that is outside the city of Chicago. He works to ensure that about 25,000 poll workers are in place to help some 1 million voters.
Orr said that most importantly, all poll workers need to exhibit professionalism.
"There's a concern within the election authority community," Orr said, that activist poll workers may be "so almost fanatical on a particular issue that they let their political view determine how they function" on Election Day.
Example: If a touch-screen voting machine is accidentally unplugged, then plugged back in, "we don't want to see poll workers calling the media saying the machines have `broken down."'
Humans run elections and make mistakes, Orr said. "We work to prevent or minimize mistakes. But mistakes may be seen as conspiracies."
Orr said he hopes feedback from workers will be shared not only with Pollworkers for Democracy, but also with officials in local jurisdictions.
"We get a lot of good suggestions from people. That gives us ideas on how to improve the process," he said.
Jennifer Collins-Foley is co-founder of the Pollworker Institute, currently researching "everything you wanted to know about being a poll worker" in jurisdictions across the country, with funding from the federal Election Assistance Commission.
The group is examining recruiting, training and retention of workers. Findings will be released in book form early next year, Collins-Foley said, to allow officials to learn from one another.
For instance, in Harris County, Texas, a "Democracy Is Hiring" drive is under way for poll workers.
"It's a diverse county of 1.9 million registered voters and three languages on the ballot -- English, Spanish and Vietnamese," said David Beirne, spokesman for County Clerk Beverly Kaufman.
Public service announcements in each language on radio and TV have drawn about 300 applicants.
"We feel it's been very successful," Beirne said.
In Saginaw, Mich., the Project Vote program was awarded nearly $17,000 by the Election Assistance Commission to recruit and train 40 to 50 college students to be poll workers in the city. Announcements on popular Web sites such as facebook.com and myspace.com are being used.
Collins-Foley, a former assistant registrar of voters for Los Angeles County, said the Pollworkers for Democracy nationwide drive "could be beneficial if workers stick to the rules. Serving voters is their ultimate goal for the day. Then it would be wonderful."
But, she cautioned, getting pledges is only the first step.
"Being recruited and showing up are different things," she said. "Sometimes they can't work at their home precinct, or have to get up earlier to work across town. And they need to stay there all day -- they can't leave to pick up their kids after school. It's a huge commitment.
"I hope all these wonderful people with the best intentions can go where they're needed."
(Dru Sefton can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
c.2006 Newhouse News Service