Their absence was felt during the primaries, when polling stations closed and lines lengthened all over the country, even as President Donald Trump tried to sow doubt about the legality of mail-in voting and courts imposed or upheld regulations that made it more difficult. In Anchorage, Alaska, 95 percent of the city’s usual poll workers had backed out by the summer. Maryland’s board of elections told the governor in July that it was short 14,000 poll workers. The same story repeated itself elsewhere, and the shortage was sometimes used as one excuse among others to shut down several polling places.
The good news is that the poll-worker recruitment campaign is going better than expected. The organization Power the Polls alone has logged more than 650,000 sign-ups, according to its co-founder Erika Soto Lamb, the vice president for social impact at Viacom (where she works closely with MTV and Comedy Central, both involved with Power the Polls). The less good news is that, as Nathaniel Persily, an election-law expert at Stanford University, cautioned me, fewer workers will actually show up. Those who do will lack experience. The job is more demanding than I had thought, calling upon a surprising number of technical, legal, and social skills.
Until this year, all I’d noticed about poll workers is that they flip through registration books, check signatures, direct people to tables, and hand out ballots. But that’s just part of the job. Poll workers open and close polling stations, set up complex machines (optical scanners or touch-screen devices) at 5:30 in the morning and take them apart late at night. In Greene County, we’ll be resealing our optical scanners with color-coded zip ties to ensure the integrity of the paper ballots stored inside. God help us if we use the wrong color. Before the voting begins, we’ll have to learn to interpret error messages so that we can explain them to voters; if the screen flashes cross party endorsement, for instance, it means the voter mistakenly voted more than once by selecting the same candidate on multiple party lines. If the devices jam, we can troubleshoot or wait for the tech people to show up. Poll workers determine whether a voter should receive a provisional, rather than regular, ballot. They are required to challenge a voter who they know or suspect is not legally entitled to vote. Poll workers report how many people voted but don’t tally up the votes cast for each candidate; that’s the responsibility of a separate canvassing board.
Nathaniel Persily and Charles Stewart III: The looming threat to voting in person
Most important, though, a poll worker is the face of the electoral process; her body language, tone of voice, and level of competence shapes voter experience. Fumbling or nasty poll workers can drive people away and undermine faith in the system. When voters reach the front of the line, election inspectors check them in, sometimes on paper, sometimes on iPads loaded with new software (that’s what I’ll have). Long check-ins make voters irritable, lengthen wait times, and depress participation: A 2014 presidential commission on election administration determined that a wait longer than a half hour was likely to send voters home. This spring, Atlantans had to wait up to five hours to vote in a primary staffed by more new poll workers than ever before (the consolidation of stations and social-distancing rules added to the chaos). “You have to have tough skin to be a poll worker, because there’s a lot of angry people, and rightfully so,” one poll worker and recruiter told the Associated Press.