They find you in the poll books and help you sign in; in Philadelphia, they set the machines so you can vote; they hand you the all-important proof-of-civic-duty sticker; they troubleshoot problems, including assisting voters with disabilities or language needs.
They’re key to smooth-running elections, and they’re also an on-the-ground defense against electoral mishap or mischief.
Poll workers run election days. And these days, they are in short supply in Philadelphia and around the country. Experts say that could have long-term consequences for voter participation.
"Their call and their charge is to protect the voting process,” said Myrna Pérez, head of the voting rights and elections project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Positive interactions with poll workers might encourage voters to participate in future elections; bad experiences could have the opposite effect, said Pérez.
A shortage of poll workers can make the latter outcome more likely. Locations don’t open on time, voters can’t be found in poll books, machines malfunction, long lines form.
The problem is that not enough people are willing to show up at the polls by 6:30 a.m. to help set up and then work past 8 p.m., when polls close, for little or no money.
It’s a national problem that has to be addressed at the most local level. Philadelphia, for example, has hundreds of polling places and requires thousands of poll workers to be fully staffed on election days.
“The critical shortage of poll workers is a problem across the state and the nation,” said Wanda Murren, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State. “In many counties, it is the number-one problem cited by election directors.”
Compounding the problem for elections officials: They never know which poll workers will show up on election days. Many of the workers are elected; if they don’t show up, their spots are filled at the last minute, usually by a ward leader’s appointment. Elections administrators can’t force anyone to show up.
How many people will work Tuesday’s primary election? How bad will the shortage be — or not be? Nobody knows until it happens, and then officials scramble to respond to any problems that occur.
“Poll worker” isn’t a specific term. In Pennsylvania, the term generally refers to five jobs that often overlap:
In last fall’s midterm election, 589 of 8,562 poll-worker spots went unfilled.
There were actually fewer poll workers last fall than in the 2015 elections — even though voter turnout was more than twice as high last year.
Because poll workers have to work long hours and some positions are elected, that excludes those who can’t make the time commitment or don’t want to run for office.
There’s also a problem of training: Poll workers can’t be forced to attend, and some of them say the training is rushed or otherwise ineffective. That can leave them unwilling to work in the future.
Last year, Philadelphia election officials increased poll workers’ pay by $20 on election days, the first raise in decades. Judges are now paid $120; others, $115. Everyone who attends training receives an additional $30.
“Election Board shortages are a national problem, but we are striving to fill every position on the Election Boards,” Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio said at a City Council budget hearing this month.
He also announced a pilot program to recruit high school students as poll workers. About 85 are signed up, he told Council, from three schools.
At a training session at Bodine High School, about 25 students watched a presentation on how to help voters, including setting up the machines.
“I want to know how everything actually works and how I can help facilitate this in order to make people want to vote again and make it easier for them,” said Diliana Alvarez-Perez, 17.
In Bucks County, which has run “Youth at the Booth” for several years, 35 students worked in November and 20 are assigned this election, a county spokesperson said.
And there’s reason to hope students can help address the problem: Chicago has a successful student poll worker program, and in the suburbs more than 1,500 students from more than 80 schools participate each year.
Nearly 800 Philadelphians responded to the campaign, which included ads on social media, on radio stations, at bus stops, and more, said Aerion Abney, the program’s Pennsylvania director.
“It’s not really a well-publicized or well-known opportunity,” he said.
Ultimately, 27 people worked the polls after being recruited, Abney said.
The group also heard a lot of feedback about training, Abney said, which Pérez also identified as important. The Brennan Center is working on poll-worker guides to help fill the training gap, she said. The Pennsylvania Department of State has also posted a series of poll-worker training videos on YouTube.
Part of the difficulty, Pérez said, is money.
“Elections are one of these things where people want top-flight services, but we’re not willing to pay what top-flight services cost,” she said. “We’re the best democracy in the world — but we want it on the cheap.”
For Haneen Mutan, a 17-year-old Bodine High School senior, working this election is part of doing her part to make that democracy work.
“I used to think we didn’t have voices, coming from a first-generation family and parents who were immigrants,” she said.
Now, she sees voting as the voice of the people, and wants to ensure that everyone is heard.
“That was what really made me interested in doing this position and being more first-hand,” she said. “Growing up, I heard the quote a lot, ‘Be the change you want to see.’ This is a way of me actually participating in that and having an impact.”