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Push for Poll Workers As Election Nears

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

Elections officials across Washington are scrambling to recruit enough poll workers for the November election, plastering banks and grocery stores with posters and advertising in newspapers to prepare for what could be a record turnout.

The Virginia State Board of Elections reported last week that despite a major push to attract workers this summer, the state was still about 1,600 workers short of the number needed to handle the anticipated crush. The greatest shortages are in fast-growing places, including Loudoun County.

"If we don't get enough, that means longer lines, longer waits and then disgruntled voters," said Dianna Price, secretary of the Loudoun County Electoral Board.

In Maryland, officials are seeking to recruit 4,000 more election judges than were on hand for February's presidential primary and are adding chairs for the elderly and disabled and additional voting machines, said Guy Mickley, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials. Statewide turnout could top 85 percent, Mickley said. In the 2004 election, it was 78 percent.

District officials are hoping to have 2,200 poll workers Nov. 4, up from 1,400 to 1,500 four years ago, said Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the District's Board of Elections and Ethics. Murphy said a recruiting drive for the Sept. 9 congressional and council primary as well as the buzz surrounding the presidential race should help.

"The higher profile the election, the more people want to be a part of it," Murphy said. "We're very optimistic that we're going to reach our goal for November."

Virginia officials are preparing for turnout as high as 85 percent, based on overwhelming participation in the February primary and the state's unusual position this year as a swing state. Some local officials say they are preparing for a 100 percent turnout.

Although the state has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964, Virginia's growing and shifting electorate is now key to the Democratic strategy for winning the White House. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is likely to draw his strongest support from Northern Virginia, which helped tip the state to Democrat James Webb in the 2006 U.S. Senate election and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine in the 2005 gubernatorial election. Polls show Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), neck and neck in Virginia. If the race remains close as Nov. 4 approaches, turnout could soar.

Recruiting poll workers is a perennially tricky task. One difficulty is the low pay. Poll workers, who in Virginia are referred to as election officers and in Maryland are called election judges, typically make about $100 to $200 for a long day of sometimes grueling work.

They do everything from checking in voters and helping people with their ballots to driving the vote tallies to elections headquarters at the end of the night. They are expected to arrive at the polls long before they open and stay hours after they close. Their job often includes pacifying voters who encounter long lines or show up at the wrong polling station.

Most of them do it more out of a sense of civic responsibility than for the money, said Juanita Florio, 55, a Manassas resident who has served as an election officer nearly every election over the past 20 years.

"It is exciting," said Florio, a library media assistant at Sudley Elementary School. "It makes you feel like part of the electoral process. We all take pride in it."

Usually a shortage of poll workers will mean little more than long lines. But there is always the risk that overworked officers could make a mistake.

"The more we put on them, the more stress they're under, and they're human beings," Murphy said.

A shortage of trained poll workers in Maryland was partly blamed for widespread problems during the 2006 primary, when dozens of polling places opened late and some voters were turned away without casting their ballots. In 2002, results of a congressional primary were delayed for hours as Montgomery County poll workers struggled with new voting machines. In this year's presidential primary in the District, some poll workers declined to make touch-screen voting machines available because they were intimidated by the technology.

In July, elections officials in Virginia began an aggressive campaign to recruit poll workers after learning that there was a statewide need for about 10,000 more precinct staff members -- a number that jolted Nancy Rodrigues, secretary of the State Board of Elections. The board alerted media organizations and posted signs throughout the state.

Virginians stepped up to the plate, Rodrigues said, in part because of the sense of history surrounding this election.

"Every presidential election is an exciting one, so you always get much more interest than you do [for] other elections," Rodrigues said. "But clearly, everyone is very, very interested in this one, as we saw in the primary election, when we had more voters in February . . . than we had in last year's November statewide election."

But that same excitement is why jurisdictions across Washington are trying to staff their precincts with a glut of workers, preparing for a high level of scrutiny.

All applicants are welcome in Howard County, which is hoping to put more than 1,100 workers in its 110 precincts. Fairfax County expects to put 3,000 workers, more than ever before, in place to ensure things go smoothly. All of the areas say they are within reach of their goals.

The challenge will be greater in Loudoun, where the population has grown about 18 percent and 10 precincts have been added since 2004. The crowds were so overwhelming that year that at one precinct in Ashburn, workers opened the doors at 6 a.m. to find 500 people in line. Officials are trying to recruit 200 additional workers to avoid similar problems this year and have placed ads in local newspapers.

"People are contacting us because they think this is a historic event, and they all want to be part of it," said Price, the Loudoun Electoral Board secretary. "But there aren't enough people who feel that way."

Staff writer Jonathan Mummolo and researchers Meg Smith and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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