Key to election, poll workers in demand
'Long hours and increasingly complex duties' - for a one-day job
James Q. Lynch
CEDAR RAPIDS — Candidates? Check.
Campaign funds? Check.
Yard signs? Bumper stickers? Check. Check.
Poll workers? Uh, better check.
Counting down the days until Nov. 8, some county officials still are scrambling to fill the ranks of those folks who actually conduct the election.
In Iowa’s larger counties, hundreds of people are needed for what’s essentially a one-day job. County auditors lean heavily on retirees who are willing and available to spend a long day helping voters cast their ballots.
“Recruiting poll workers has always been a challenge,” said Eric Van Lancker, Clinton County auditor for eight years, who needs about 200 poll workers for Nov. 8.
That’s because of the “amount of responsibility, the long hours and increasingly complex duties,” said Karen Showalter, Black Hawk County elections manager. Black Hawk County hopes to hire 350 poll workers.
“Understand that they work a 16-hour day, administering hundreds of complex election laws to process up to 1,000 voters over a 14-hour period, once a year,” added Ken Kline, Cerro Gordo County auditor, who will deploy 165 poll workers to 26 polling places and another 24 to count absentee ballots.
Auditors have tried a variety of ways to attract poll workers — formally known as precinct election officials. Raising their pay is a common approach. Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, who needs more than 600 poll workers, pays $160 for Election Day — $200 for poll chairpersons — and mileage if they must travel more than five miles.
In Woodbury County, where 234 workers are needed at polling places and 30 to count absentee votes, Auditor Pat Gill met with the local Democratic and Republican parties to discuss the issue. The most common comments were about low pay and long hours.
The Board of Supervisors raised pay to $10 an hour — $12 for chairpersons. It also was agreed that poll workers could work a split shift, something Gill didn’t think was ideal.
However, by agreeing to pay time-and-a-half after eight hours “to give them incentive to work the entire 16-hour day,” Gill was able to attract more than enough workers.
Roland Caldwell, operations manager in the Scott County Auditor’s Office, was well on his way to meeting his target of 350 poll workers, “but you always lose some to health or other things along the way.”
Scott pays $7.92 an hour — $8.21 for chairpersons.
In Johnson County, 400 poll workers are needed.
Kline has heard that the average age of poll workers is 70-plus, and that conforms to his colleagues’ experience. So they’ve turned to recruiting high school students who are at least 17.
Showalter also has tried recruiting younger people comfortable with the technology used in polling places.
“But most are still working full time and unable to take a vacation day to work the polls,” she said.
Van Lancker reported succeeding in recruiting a couple of people who take a day off to work the polls.
Auditors say the increased use of technology can cut both ways in recruiting poll workers.
New technology is voter-friendly, Showalter said.
“However, as we continue to develop our processes and take advantage of the technological resources that are available to us, we continue to lose some of our older, more experienced poll workers.”
However, Kline said the Precinct Atlas system he helped develop has aided recruitment and retention. For one thing, poll workers don’t have to remember complex election laws.
“They simply read and follow the intuitive and user-friendly prompts on the computer screen,” he said.
Overall, Kline said, the majority of poll workers see it as a public service.
“They want to be part of an important process and (are) proud of the work they do,” he said.