It’s Your Patriotic Duty: Work the Polls

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for May 11 and thereafter
745 words

INDIANAPOLIS — Help wanted. Applicants must be willing to work long hours for low pay for just two days a year. The successful candidates will be good communicators, patient with the public and willing to buy donuts on their way to the job site.

Indiana needs more poll workers. That’s one of the lessons from last week’s primary election. Across the state, party officials report chronic problems filling the unglamorous Election Day jobs that most voters take for granted.

"It is a sacrifice, especially when you consider how busy everyone seems to be," says Lisa Kobe, a Republican precinct committeewoman in Indianapolis. "And it"s a long day. You have to be there at 6 a.m. and usually stay an hour or two past the closing of polls at 6 p.m." The pay varies by county, but generally runs between $70 and $130.

Every voting precinct is required by law to have one inspector, two judges and two poll clerks. The inspector is selected by the county chairman of the political party that won the last secretary of state’s election. The other jobs are split evenly between the parties.

Multiply five times the number of Hoosier precincts — about 5,600 — and one quickly sees the scope of the problem.

Indiana’s not unique. A 2001 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures urged states to take immediate steps to expand the pool of workers, to offer more pay if necessary and to improve training to ensure uniform knowledge of the complex rules that govern how ballots must be handled.

In 2002, the Indiana legislature passed an election reform law that attempted to address the shortage. Senate Bill 403 permitted 16 and 17-year-olds to work the polls, as long as they have a 3.0 grade point average and the permission of their parents and principal.

Unfortunately, "I haven’t seen a measurable difference in participation since the law was changed," reports Luke Messer, executive director of the Indiana Republican Party.

Marion County Democratic Chairman Ed Treacy agrees. High school students aren’t eager to wake up at 5 a.m., even for $70, he says. Without strong support from school boards and superintendents, he doesn’t see the law having much impact.

What’s needed is a comprehensive effort to entice new poll workers. Some model programs worth emulating:

–Officials in DuPage County, Ill. conducted what the NCSL described as a "wildly successful" campaign that recruited 2,350 new election judges. Its marketing effort consisted of posters in libraries and township offices, full-page newspaper ads that used an Uncle Sam "We Need You" appeal; and polling place notices that listed a telephone number to call to get involved. The cost of the campaign: just $28,000.

–In Johnson County, Kan., officials found that such minor token as supplying cookies on election day; providing patriotic lapel pins and sending personal thank you notes reduce turnover among poll workers.

–Long Beach, Calif. launched the Student Poll Worker Program in 1997. The city clerk works with high school government teachers to recruit students and offers training classes at each participating high school. Local businesses donate gift certificates, which are used as raffle prizes during the training sessions. The mayor honors all the students at a post-election ceremony.

On the coercive end of the spectrum is the Nebraska Election Day Worker Draft, which permits counties to draft citizens to serve as election day workers. Citizens whose names are drawn from the list of registered voters must serve in four elections. A person who fails to report on election day can be convicted of a Class III misdemeanor. In the 2000 elections, only the county where Omaha is located had to draft workers.

Hoosiers who’d like to voluntarily sign up for duty can express their interest at the political party web sites (www.indems.org and www.indgop.org).

Far from being something to dread, Messer believes working the polls can be a memorable experience.

"One of my favorite days each year is Election Day. It is really something at 6 a.m. to see the sun rising as Americans walk into the polls to fulfill their civic responsibility. And to know that this same activity is happening all over America as everyday citizens select their leaders. As hokey as it may sound, we are all blessed to live in a country that is a beacon of liberty for the entire world. And, no day better signifies that status than Election Day."



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