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America’s Most Important Workers on Election Day Aren’t Paid Like it

Elections cost millions of dollars to organize and run, but some of the most crucial work is performed by low-wage workers, specifically poll workers.

American elections are run locally, which means government officials need to recruit and pay people to work at voting locations. But the requirements for the jobs, which include being available and able to work for 12 hours or more on Election Day, can make it difficult to find people willing to sign up.

"It is a predicament that plagues almost every jurisdiction in the country and it grows worse every year," begins a 2014 report by the federal Election Assistance Commission.

The commission found that more than half of all states had jurisdictions that reported it was either "somewhat" or "very" difficult to recruit poll workers for the 2012 election. Every one of Louisiana's parishes rated it somewhat difficult that year, while more than half of Indiana's election-day voters live in counties where it was at least somewhat difficult to find poll workers. In 2014, all 120 counties in Kentucky reported that recruiting poll workers was very difficult.

Here's why it matters: Without enough poll workers, voters can experience longer lines, polling places can open late, and there may not be workers available to tackle issues that voters might encounter.

Long waiting times are one of the most visible and significant issues that can occur on Election Day. And although they can have a number of causes, a lack of poll workers is an important factor, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice.

There are a few reasons why recruiting poll workers has gotten harder. The increased participation of women in the workforce and new technology that older Americans can find daunting have played a role. Under the Voting Rights Act, some polling places need to have poll workers with specific language skills. Then there's the pay.

The amount of money that poll workers can earn varies, but typically is in the range of $150-$200 on Election Day (as in Miami-Dade County, Florida). Workers can earn additional amounts for attending trainings and setting up a voting location. Alameda County, in California, offers high school students $130 for working at the polls on Election Day.

Even when people sign up to be poll workers, they don't always show up. "Many jurisdictions will have hired their full complement of necessary workers only to see 10-15 percent cancel in the last week and then there are the additional ones who just don’t show up on Election Day," said Tammy Patrick, a former federal compliance officer for the Maricopa County Elections Department in Arizona who also served on the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.

Many poll workers are decades out of high school, however. Because retirees often have the time (and are among the most reliable voters), they comprise a large segment of poll workers in many places. Half of Oklahoma's poll workers in 2014 were 71 years or older, according to the election commission's survey. In 2012, two-thirds of Wisconsin poll workers were at least 61 years old.

Douglas County, Nebraska, which contains Omaha, has taken a very interesting approach. Some poll workers there are drafted from the list of registered voters, much like for jury duty, and once selected must work in four elections. The only ways to avoid this are supplying a volunteer in your place or canceling your voter registration.

About Electionland

ProPublica’s Electionland project covers problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Our coalition of newsrooms around the country are investigating issues related to voter registration, pandemic-related changes to voting, the shift to vote-by-mail, cybersecurity, voter education, misinformation, and more.

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