Forget about glitchy electronic voting machines. Never mind confusing ballot designs and hanging chads. The biggest problem in next month's election could turn out to be a shortage of well-trained poll workers that leads to widespread mistakes at polling booths, according to federal election officials.
With less than two weeks to go, the current crop of aging poll workers falls several hundred thousand short of the 2 million the U.S. Election Assistance Commission says is needed to run a smooth national election.
The commission said the problem is acute in large cities, where there are high concentrations of Democratic and minority voters, and it comes at a time when election officials nationwide are expecting that the close race between President Bush and Democrat John F. Kerry will produce record voter turnout.
After the disputed 2000 election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. This presidential election, poll workers will play a more crucial role than ever as voters cast ballots on new machines, face new identification requirements and cast new "provisional ballots" if their names are not found on the registration rolls.
The commission, created by Congress to help smooth out national elections, has been warning about a shortage of poll workers for months. Running an election is a massive undertaking: Los Angeles and Chicago alone need a combined 38,000 people.
Shortages, coupled with new voting rules and ongoing litigation that has left basic rules in battleground states in flux, could lead to long lines and confusion and mistakes on the part of precinct workers that end up disenfranchising voters, said DeForest B. Soaries Jr., the commission's chairman.
"If you don't have those people inside the polls to help, no policy and no machine will matter," Soaries said. "The election process breaks down without poll workers, and you can't have a democracy without them."
The commission has tried to attract college students, but Soaries said most of the battleground states face a shortage of trained poll workers.
Rebecca Vigil-Giron, New Mexico's chief election official and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said labor unions and others are offering volunteers to work the polls in her home state, but she worries about whether there is enough time to properly train new volunteers. One upside, she said, is that Election Day pressure may be somewhat relieved in states such as hers that offer early voting.
One of the few bright spots in terms of having an adequate number of poll workers, Soaries said, is Florida. But residents complained that there were not enough workers on hand to handle the flood of people casting their ballots on Monday when the state opened early voting sites.
State and local officials say the problem has worsened over time as poll workers have grown older; the average age of a poll worker today is 72, according to the commission. While local election boards in the battleground state of Ohio have tried to recruit a new generation, a spokesman for Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell said shortages continue to be a problem in every election.
In Cuyahoga County, election officials say they are 316 workers short of the 5,744 needed to run the election.
Gwen Dillingham, deputy director of the county election board, said long hours and low pay have made it difficult to attract poll workers, but this year there is an added twist, with both the Kerry and Bush campaigns preparing to send thousands of lawyers to monitor the polls.
"All this talk of attorneys is scaring people away," Dillingham said. The poll workers "are grandmothers and grandfathers -- they don't want lawyers screaming and arguing at them."
Soaries said it is not too late to volunteer to work inside the polls, as opposed to monitoring them from the outside.
"The best way to protect voters' rights is to volunteer to be a poll worker," he said.