As Iowans gear up for a pivotal midterm vote this November, auditors and election staffs across the state begin the arduous task of securing enough poll workers to manage the precincts.
Finding those willing and able to work their local polling location is an annual challenge, made all the more difficult as Iowa’s precinct election officials are growing older and the job is becoming more complex.
“It tends to be people who have a more flexible work schedule, maybe are retired, and that makes the pool a lot smaller,” Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate told The Gazette. “Recruiting poll workers has really always been a challenge for counties, and it’s not unique to Iowa.”
More than 75 percent of Iowa’s poll workers were 61 or older in 2016, according to an analysis by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
What’s more, poll workers must adapt to new elections technologies and a growing sense of scrutiny over the U.S. electoral process.
Despite those challenges, Pate described the precinct election official position as “probably the most crucial” Election Day job and said it’s vital Iowa counties find and maintain a strong crop of capable poll workers.
“It’s the people who are on the front line, who deal with the voter who comes in on Election Day who wants to cast a ballot. They need to be prepared to help the voter through that process with minimal effort and give them a successful experience. That’s very crucial,” Pate said.
IOWA SKEWS OLDER
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission is an independent, bipartisan group charged with creating guidance for the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was passed after the disputed 2000 election and included reforms to the national voting process.
The commission conducts regular surveys to collect nationwide election information, including a 2016 election administrating and voting survey.
That survey found that 20 of the 74 Iowa counties that responded said 91 percent or more of their poll workers were older than 61. Every county that responded to the survey said more than half their poll workers were over 61.
Based on the counties that reported, less than 2 percent of the poll workers were 25 or younger.
To compare with national numbers, about 10 percent of poll workers were 25 or younger in 2016, while about 55 percent of poll workers nationwide were 61 or older, the survey found.
In addition to having more flexibility in their schedules, older individuals often have the highest voter turnout, Pate noted.
“If you look at the standard voting ages in our state at least, and I suspect it’s pretty reflective of the country, the older you are the more likely you are to vote,” Pate said.
According to Iowa Secretary of State data, Iowans 50 years old and above accounted for almost 55 percent of all votes cast in the 2016 election. Turnout among registered voters above 50 surpassed 80 percent.
For Linn County, 79 percent of poll workers in the 2016 election were 61 or older. Of those, 239 poll workers — nearly 39 percent — were 70 or older.
HARD TO FIND
Elections officials in Linn and Johnson counties said poll worker age can create issues in finding enough Election Day staff.
The growing use of technology at polling places — the county recently started using electronic poll books — adds challenges for older poll workers who might not be computer-savvy, said Rebecca Stonawski, deputy commissioner of elections for Linn County.
“Sometimes people age out of the system, but also we have increasing technology needs and we really have to make sure people can do basic computer skills,” she said.
Carrie Nierling, Johnson County deputy auditor of elections, said older poll workers aren’t the only ones who have to adapt to changes to the election process.
“It is a lot to learn and it’s a lot of pressure,” Nierling said. “The more the rules change, the harder it is I think, not just for elderly people, but people of all ages, to keep up.”
Thomas Hicks, commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said he’s seen many older poll workers have little trouble adjusting to new polling site technology.
“I think it’s a small bit of a misnomer to say older folks are not embracing technology,” he said. “I think that, for the most part, the older poll workers are just as confident as anyone else.”
In addition to changes in technology, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller said national conversations of hacking and voter fraud can add an extra layer of pressure on poll workers.
“I think there’s more perceived scrutiny because of the voter ID law and the requirements that has imposed on the precinct election officials working Election Day,” Miller said.
Nierling said that scrutiny could be the deciding factor on whether a poll worker decides to return to work on another election.
“I think it’s definitely fair to say that with all the microscopes, the eyes that are on elections right now, making sure there is no fraud and the voter ID law passing ... there are a lot of eyes on elections making sure they’re being handled the way they’re supposed to be handled,” Nierling said.
If locating poll workers isn’t challenging enough, simply finding a political mix can add another layer of difficulty.
Per Iowa Code, one political party cannot exceed a simple majority in a precinct. So if there are five poll workers, at least two have to be Republican if the remaining three are Democrats.
That can be a challenge in a county like Johnson, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1.
FINDING POLL WORKERS
Linn County last month hired its first recruiter, Donna Craft, to find the roughly 600 poll workers needed for the Nov. 6 general election.
While previous elections have been staffed thanks in large part to word-of-mouth, Miller said more needs to be done to reach new audiences.
Nierling said Johnson County’s 2016 recruiting push netted the county a solid cadre of poll workers.
“Before the presidential, we were really out talking about it,” she said. “We’re not terribly concerned about having enough people this year, but it’s always a surprise.”
Knowing so many Iowa counties face significant needs for poll workers, Secretary Pate said his office has encouraged local officials to “think outside the box” when it comes to recruiting.
“You’re going to have to ask existing poll workers to perhaps bring more poll workers in; you’re going to have to put more pressure on the political parties to step up with their lists. You’re going to have to go to the community colleges ... high schools, the same thing. There’s a lot more work being placed on the auditors to do those kind of things,” Pate said.
Pate also said it’s possible counties would pursue election centers, which would combine multiple precincts and polling sites into a single location, reducing the number of staff needed.
Poll worker pay is another item being looked at, Pate added. In Linn County, Election Day poll workers get $200 a day, plus mileage.
“All options are on the table,” Pate said. “I can’t underscore enough the importance these poll workers play.”
Become a poll worker
- Must be registered to vote
- Cannot be a felon
- Cannot have a direct relative on the ballot in an opposed race
- Be able to read, listen, have legible handwriting, give clear spoken instructions
- Be able to accurately implement election laws and complete basic computer tasks
- Must attend a paid two- to six-hour class
- Provide customer service
- Be able to work long hours
- Set up voting equipment and polling place before polls open
- Make sure those voting are qualified to vote
- Close polling place
- Complete paperwork and clean up space.
Linn County: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (319) 892-5300; apply online at linncounty.org/402 or mail application to Linn County Election Services, 935 Second St. SW, Cedar Rapids, IA 52404
Johnson County: Email email@example.com or call (319) 356-6004; apply online at johnson-county.com/dept_auditor_elections.aspx?id-21949 or mail an application to Johnson County Auditor’s Office, 913 S. Dubuque St. Suite 101, Iowa City, IA 52240
l Comments: (319) 398-8309; firstname.lastname@example.org