Ohio Official Contemplates Poll-Worker Draft - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Ohio Official Contemplates Poll-Worker Draft

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Fledgling Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner suggested last week that Ohio might try enlisting poll workers like courts enlist jurors. In other words, occasionally working the polls would be a mandatory part of a registered voter's life.

Though it may seem radical at first blush, the idea has been brewing since 2005.

That's when the Commission of Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker, issued its report on improving American elections in the wake of the closely divided 2004 presidential election.

The former Democratic president and former Republican secretary of state noted some harsh realities that are contributing to the country's poll worker shortage. The average age of poll workers is 72. They are paid minimum wage. They work 15-hour days with little, if any, appreciation ever directed their way.

And the job they do, the report noted, requires understanding complex rules, operating increasingly sophisticated technology and doing it all with a sunny disposition "to interact with a diversity of people in a calm and friendly manner."

In addition to increasing the money flowing to poll-worker training and perhaps honoring these civic-minded citizens with a Poll Worker Appreciation Day once in a while, the commission recommended that states consider drafting poll workers as another alternative.

Yet, in the 16 months since that report was released, not one state has done it, said Kay Stimson, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Though a stray county here and there has made an attempt, it is a difficult practice to implement on a statewide basis, she said.

"You have to consider that the (nation's election) system is very decentralized," Stimson said. "In most states, secretaries of state could not dictate that to the counties. The county clerks would have to adopt it on their own."

Instead of pursuing that approach, the secretaries of state association has focused its attention on expanding the pool of poll workers voluntarily. The problem reached critical mass during the 2004 general election, when 2 million poll workers were needed across the country and only 1.5 million could be found.

Stimson said many states, including Ohio, are experimenting with allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work at the polls.

"Research has shown that when you get them into the polls, it removes a lot of the mysticism involved," she said. "It tends to make them into eager and involved voters."

Other ideas have been tried, such as Kansas City's "Making Voting Popular" project, which encouraged employers to provide workers "civic leave" to serve as poll workers.

In Guilford County, North Carolina, a voluntary "Precinct Workers Certification" course was offered in conjunction with a local community college that built confidence and camaraderie among prospective poll workers. Though it was not required, more than 80 percent of poll workers participated.

Other states have passed laws making Election Day a work holiday, an approach some lawmakers reject because they are skeptical that workers would see it as a civic opportunity rather than a welcome day off.

For experience in requiring poll workers to serve, the Carter-Baker commission had to go outside United States borders, where Mexico uses the practice.

Mexican citizens are selected randomly, like American jurors. They are trained and then assessed on the skills they've attained. The commission reported that five times as many poll workers are trained as will be needed, allowing officials to pick only the best qualified.

"The process of training so many citizens serves the additional purpose of educating the public in voting procedures," said the report. "This practice both reflects and contributes to a broad civic commitment to democracy."

In America, bastion of democracy that it is, the situation is quite different. A little over a third of eligible adults register to vote, and it is considered a successful election when half of those registered show up at the polls. In Ohio, the record participation levels of 2004 - 72 percent of those eligible voted - fell sharply again in 2005, to about 40 percent.

Brunner told Ohio's 300 county election officials last week that her first order of business is to restore confidence in the election systems, after which perhaps higher participation will follow.

"It's the viewpoint of the people out there that we've got to work hard to repair," she said. "We need to put that to bed

Powered by Frankly