Election’s poll workers face myriad challenges amid changes in voting rules

October 26, 2012

There’s no talking politics on the job. Try not to wear red or blue. No snooping through electronic records to see whether your neighbor is lying about her age. Bring plenty of food for a day that will run from 5 a.m. to as late as 9 p.m.

Most important, assistant registrar Keith Heyward told volunteer poll workers in a recent training class, try to put voters at ease. Months of news reports about photo identification and other changes have left them confused and leery.

“People are coming to the precincts expecting you to give them a hard time,” Heyward said. “We don’t need you to give them a hard time.”

After two conventions, four debates, hundreds of candidate appearances and billions of dollars in advertising, the 2012 election will culminate in this: a brief and fragile connection between voter and poll worker. On Nov. 6, a one-day workforce of nearly 1 million will open the doors to about 130,000 polling places across the country.

The question is: Are they up to it?

Poll workers in this election will be challenged as never before, given new laws tightening voting rules in dozens of states. Redistricting has altered precinct lines, making it easier for voters to walk into the wrong polling place. New machines and evolving rules on how to serve non-English-speaking or disabled voters are also in the mix. Already, reports are popping up across the country of confusion over dates and rules.

Nov. 6 could be a turbulent day, Chesapeake general registrar William “Al” Spradlin warned the training class.

“This is going to be the craziest election y’all have ever been involved in,” he said.

He was referring to the chaotic, angst-filled environment that poll workers might face. Watchdog groups will be on hair-trigger alert for anything that smacks of fraud, intimidation or suppression. Grass-roots organizations such as True the Vote vow to aggressively challenge those who they think are illegally casting ballots. Labor unions and ballot-access advocates will be there to push back and try to make sure that everyone who can vote gets a chance.

All of this will hover around poll workers, whose fluency in the law and technical know-how could be the difference between a smooth day and one plagued by long lines, accusations of fraud, recounts or litigation.

“They are kind of the last gatekeepers to the ballot,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that works on voting issues.

Although as much as 40 percent of the electorate will have cast ballots in early voting, that still leaves millions who will walk into polling places not quite sure whether rules have changed.

Virginia’s voter-ID law is among the more flexible of the new measures across the country, allowing more than two dozen forms of photo and non-photo identification. Anything from a utility bill to a concealed handgun permit with a current address will be enough to cast a ballot. But it ends a practice that had allowed voters without ID to vote after signing an affidavit swearing to their identity. Now, those who lack any identification — even if their names are on precinct rolls — will have to use a provisional ballot. They will have until noon on the Friday after the election to present officials with acceptable ID or their votes will not be counted.

Never tell someone they can’t vote, Heyward counseled. Always offer at least a provisional ballot, even if the chances of it being counted are nil.

“You want to give them the comfort of voting,” he said.

In Chesapeake, training day seemed to draw mostly those with no agenda except an interest in helping out — for $108.75 in pay, plus $25 for taking the class.

Derrek Williams, 54, a retired safety officer for the federal Bureau of Prisons, said he volunteered because “I just wanted to do something bigger than myself.”

Carol Lehman, 65, a Chesapeake poll worker for 20 years who now helps Heyward with trainees, said she looks forward to election season because she lives on a cattle farm outside town. “I get to see a lot of my neighbors,” she said. “It’s a different kind of a day for me.”

Americans tend to give poll workers high marks. A 2008 survey found overwhelming approval, although there was slightly less enthusiasm among African American voters.

Still, virtually every recent election problem has had at least some connection to poll workers. The 36-day Florida recount in 2000 yielded numerous reports of poorly trained, misinformed or negligent workers who miscounted ballots or turned away qualified voters.

In response to the 2000 debacle, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, funding new voting machines and establishing standards for states to follow. But problems have persisted.

In 2008, according to a report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, college students in Virginia, Colorado and Michigan were told they could lose their parent’s health insurance benefits if they registered where they attended school. In Ohio that year, thousands of voters had their ballots thrown out because they were directed to the wrong precincts by poll workers.

Testimony in a 2010 lawsuit brought by a judicial candidate in Ohio’s Hamilton County revealed alarming levels of confusion and incompetence. Workers at polling places that housed multiple precincts had directed hundreds of voters to the wrong tables and then voided their ballots.

In ordering the ballots counted last year — a decision upheld on appeal — U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott described a “chaotic” voting process in which some poll workers were unaware of the basics of their job. One election worker, asked at trial about precincts separated by a street (even-numbered addresses on one side and odd-numbered on the other) could not tell the difference between even and odd numbers.

Hundreds of jurisdictions suffer from chronic shortages of volunteers, forcing workers to double up on duties. Some critics suggest that the country’s poll worker corps, dominated by retirees, has difficulty with the long hours and keeping up with changes in technology and the law. Sixty percent of volunteers in 2010 were between 41 and 70 years old, and nearly a quarter were 71 or older.

Training, usually controlled by appointed local election boards, is a patchwork of inconsistent practices. “One of the big challenges is that most states don’t standardize training or even require it,” said Denise Lieberman, a St. Louis lawyer for the Advancement Project.

Others who have studied the system express concern about partisanship. In Virginia, the composition of local election boards shifts with the party that holds the governor’s office.

Spradlin, 76, a conservative Republican and former marketing director for a chemical company, said he and other registrars play it straight down the middle.

“I’m passionate about elections being run fairly and correctly for everybody,” he said.

In Chesapeake, about 550 volunteers will spread out among the city’s 64 polling locations at 5 a.m. on Election Day, taking an hour to prepare voting machines and ready the site.

The city had its share of troubles in 2008. Problems with the electronic poll books, the laptop computers that workers use to retrieve voter information, caused delays of six to seven hours. Poll workers had trouble hooking up some of the computers.

At the recent training session, some older volunteers struggled with the laptops. A PowerPoint presentation flickered across the screens with a series of diagrams on how to assemble the equipment, resembling something one would receive from Ikea on Christmas Day.

Chesapeake assistant registrar Heyward said he used to do more of this hands-on training, but it didn’t seem to help. For now, the city will count on more-
experienced workers to help out the novices.

“The best thing is on-the-job training on election morning,” he said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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