More Poll Workers Recruited, But Training Proves Daunting

Jim Callahan, left, and Joseph Burke, Montgomery County election judge trainees, study electronic devices used to check in voters at polls.
Jim Callahan, left, and Joseph Burke, Montgomery County election judge trainees, study electronic devices used to check in voters at polls. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

He had heard the horror stories about the voter check-in machines crashing during Maryland's September primary. And he knew about the doomsday fears of hackers hijacking an election.

But Samuel Goodman's main concern during a training session last week for prospective election judges in Montgomery County was something far more simple: how to turn on the machines.

In the aftermath of glitches that marred primaries in Maryland and other states, a lot of attention has focused on electronic voting systems -- why they malfunctioned and how susceptible they are to attack. But the pillars of Election Day are the legions of judges, the human safeguards in a process that has become more complicated as voting has grown more automated and layered with regulations.

The judges, often known as poll workers, have been recruited en masse locally and across the country leading up to the general election Tuesday. Prince George's and Montgomery counties, for example, will have 300 more than in the September primary.

Goodman is part of the wave of hastily recruited Montgomery trainees, and at 73 he fits what elections officials say is the age profile of the average poll worker nationwide. Most are well into their retirement years, and the technology changes can be daunting for some of those who didn't grow up using computers. That is why some states are looking to recruit college, and even high school, students to work the polls.

Goodman, a former NBC television news producer who lives near Rockville, said he found the jargon of the training session offered by the county Board of Elections incomprehensible and the technology overwhelming. It wasn't long before his eagerness hardened to frustration as he realized the job of check-in judge was going to be a lot harder than he thought.

He's no computer whiz, but given a bit more time he could manage, he said. In a single three-hour class, "there was no way to absorb all that," he said.

For the most part, poll workers are ordinary people who work long hours for little pay and perform admirably under trying conditions. Since the 2000 presidential election debacle, several states, including Maryland, have replaced paper ballot voting with electronic systems, and poll workers have had to relearn their jobs.

Some states have new rules to learn about checking photo identification at the polls and offering provisional ballots.

"We've made more election reform in the last six years in this country than we had in the 230 before it," said Paul S. DeGregorio, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which was created in 2002 to help elections run smoothly. "When you have poll workers who have been used to one system for 20, 30, 40 years, teaching them a new system can take a couple of elections for them to get used to."

Across Maryland, officials launched an aggressive campaign to recruit judges after the troubled fall primary, saying they needed more people to help with the general election. The judges are hired temporarily and paid $150 or more to work at precincts on Election Day after several hours of training.

State officials have called for additional training, but some local elections administrators say the sessions aren't nearly long enough.

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