Bill Lueders: Elections need army of poll workers

2013-10-02T09:00:00Z Bill Lueders: Elections need army of poll workersBILL LUEDERS | director, Money & Politics project at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Millions upon millions of dollars poured into political campaigns. Candidate appearances and yard signs and the blitzkrieg of political ads. None of these would mean a thing if it weren’t for the actual casting of votes, and the systems in place to make this happen.

In Wisconsin, this crucial part of the process is overseen by the state Government Accountability Board. There are also thousands of local elections officials and what Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has called "an army of temporary poll workers."

Burden is an expert on this army, with its regiments and battalions scattered throughout the land. When the newly formed Presidential Commission on Election Administration met recently in Cincinnati to gather information on poll workers, it invited him to testify.

Also appearing at this Sept. 20 gathering, on a panel discussing best practices for states, was Kevin Kennedy, the GAB’s director and general counsel. Kennedy touted the state’s best-in-the-nation ranking in the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trust’s Election Performance Index, based on the 2008 elections.

Barry Burden of the UW-Madison says officials should focus on "the quality as well as quantity of poll workers."

Burden’s testimony focused on research he’s done with Jeffrey Milyo, an economics professor at the University of Missouri. He highlighted the vital role poll workers play in facilitating voter participation and confidence, and urged the commission to focus on "the quality as well as quantity of poll workers."

An accompanying paper explored the issue state by state. Last year in Wisconsin, 39 percent of local elections officials said finding enough poll workers was "somewhat difficult" or "very difficult." That national average was 46 percent.

Meanwhile, around 70 percent of the state’s voters rated the performance of their poll workers as excellent, consistent with the national average.

In the fall 2012 election, a GAB tally shows, Wisconsin had 34,925 poll workers for about 3.1 million voters, or one for every 89 voters. Two-thirds of these workers were age 61 or older. Burden’s paper cites research showing that voters are less likely to rate older poll workers as "excellent."

Bills now before the state Legislature would let municipalities use poll workers from anywhere within their counties and tinker with rules that allow political parties to nominate poll workers. The new law would erase a slight advantage in naming poll workers that now goes to the party in a given area that did better in the last general election.

Currently, according to Kennedy, only about a quarter of the state’s 1,852 municipal clerks receive these nominations. Burden expects that percentage to increase in future elections.

Neither bill, part of a package authored by state Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, is controversial. Kennedy, appearing at a Sept. 4 legislative committee hearing, said the package as a whole addressed "granular-level issues."

That’s not too fine a level for Burden. He says that while countywide recruitment makes filling slots easier, "poll workers might no longer know the communities they serve," causing a less positive voting experience.

Similarly, Burden sees the bill to make clerks appoint equal numbers of poll workers from each party when possible "minor housekeeping." But he raises a more fundamental concern, saying "the polling place might be better served by poll workers without a partisan interest."

In Wisconsin, municipal clerks and GAB officials are nonpartisan. But Burden says partisan clerks elsewhere have exercised discretionary authority in ways that favor their own parties. His concern: "Someone with strong partisan views working in a polling place might, even unwittingly, impose them."

In written testimony to the committee, Kennedy said the state’s clerks "generally prefer elections inspectors who are not politically affiliated." Lisa Subeck, executive director of the "progressive" advocacy group United Wisconsin, wrote that, in her own stints as a poll worker, she did too:

"I must admit that I have never even known the political leanings or partisan choices of my fellow poll workers on election day — and I would prefer to keep it that way."

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(7) Comments

  1. bucky1again
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    bucky1again - October 03, 2013 1:11 pm
    Where do you apply to become a poll worker?
  2. witness2012
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    witness2012 - October 02, 2013 7:36 pm
    I'm a poll worker, too, and it's not easy. There are so many new procedures put in place to continually monitor and make sure there have been no mistakes- no double slips of vote number given out- that the count is correct, that everyone signed the poll book, and that the right documentation is provided for people who are registering to vote or who have an address change.

    I was very impressed with the veteran poll workers at the site I was assigned to. They were overwhelmingly female, retired, and they had the many procedures to ensure accuracy of count down and meticulously followed every check and counter-check.

    The one thing I don't know about any of them is what political party they belong to- those conversations were not allowed and should not be. I admit that I have never had as many conversations about the Packers in my life as when I work the polls.
  3. RichardSRussell
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    RichardSRussell - October 02, 2013 7:22 pm
    As they say in the Old Country, "Duh!". Yes, of course I meant 17. Thanks for catching it.
  4. S54k
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    S54k - October 02, 2013 6:22 pm
    You mean lower it 16 or 17, right? The legal age to vote is already 18.
  5. RichardSRussell
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    RichardSRussell - October 02, 2013 6:04 pm
    I am as political as hell 361 days a year. The exceptions are the spring and fall primaries and general elections, when I serve as a poll worker and take great pride in being scrupulously fair, even-handed, and non-partisan.

    To really increase the participation level of both voters and election officials, we should lower the legal voting age to 18, so high-school seniors could get first-hand live-action experience with the process while they're still engaged thru history and civics classes and student government (and, heck, even votes for homecoming king and queen). Habits established early last a lifetime.

    As to Springdalegeorge's lament that "non-partisan volunteers who actually do the work were never asked for their input on the changes or how well the system worked", that may be the case elsewhere, but I can personally testify that I've shot half a dozen suggestions up the line to the Madison city clerk's office, and Maribeth Witzel-Behl — a true believer in CQI* — has listened to every single one of them. Indeed, much of the election training we veteran poll workers receive ahead of every election focuses on the changes implemented as a result of just such feedback.

    Continuous quality improvement — based on the circa-WW2 work of management expert W. Edwards Deming — says that it's possible to double the quality of your products or services, but stupendously unlikely that you'll do it in 1 giant leap of 100%. Instead, you can do it in 100 tiny steps of 1% each. And your 2 best sources of those little incremental improvements are (1) your workers and (2) your customers.
  6. rightiehack
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    rightiehack - October 02, 2013 11:39 am
    That and we need an army of poll watchers, especially in places like Milwaukee and Racine.
  7. Springdalegeorge
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    Springdalegeorge - October 02, 2013 10:00 am
    I have worked the polls for around 20 years- it is a good way to support your local community and meet your neighbros. I have appreciated the tone of Wisconsin's elections as opposed to Chicago's where the poll workers were a lot more partisan. I expect though in many areas finding poll workers will be increasingly difficult. The increased (usually unnecessary) complexity of the rule makes it hard for people to easily do the work. You need peopel wiith a lot more skills for most of the jobs today. And if your motivation is to help people access the vote and be invovled in democracy, well that dies pretty quickly when you need to tell a student they can't vote or worse someone who has just moved here and invested in their dream home but can't vote because of recent changes in the rules. Wisconsin had possibly one of the best systems for voting in the nation which resulted in a stroinger citizen involevment with elections- maintaining that quality will be difficult and a major part of the problem is that the non-partisan volunteers who actually do the work were never asked for their input on the changes or how well the system worked.
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