Recruiting Poll Workers from Outside the Box

Terry Ao Minnis
November 6, 2017

Even during non-federal election years, officials across the country are running on all cylinders for their state and local elections. One of the key preparation activities is the recruitment and hiring of poll workers. Poll workers are critical to the success of an election, especially when it comes to voters’ confidence in their votes counting. Recent analysis conducted by the Democracy Fund, Reed College, and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study found that 63.7 percent of people who rated their poll workers as “excellent” (i.e. those who know the proper procedures) were “very confident” in the counting of their own votes.

For language minority voters, poll workers can make or break the success of their voting experience. Well-trained poll workers will know how to properly interact with language minority voters – providing proper customer service and care in assisting the voter experiencing language barriers to ensure they are able to cast a proper ballot. Poll workers who are less aware of the rights of language minority voters and/or who treat language minority voters with suspicion or in the worst case, hostility, can turn language minority voters away from voting.

Though they recognize the benefits of quality poll workers, elections officials face difficulties in recruiting enough of them and, as a result, have a limited pool of trusted, well-equipped poll workers each election. There has been a critical national shortage of poll workers, with up to a 500,000 worker deficit at any given time in the two last decades. When it comes to bilingual poll workers, the deficiencies can be even greater. In response to this problem, jurisdictions are looking outside the box to devise innovative methods for to recruitment, which can be replicated across the country.

Tapping high school students has been particularly helpful in onboarding bilingual poll workers, because younger generations often serve as translators for their parents and family members. Democracy Fund staff reached out to election officials in Minneapolis, Minnesota about the state’s student election judge program, which recruits kids from public schools, charter schools, and private schools, as well as home schooled students. Through this program, Minneapolis has doubled the number of student election judges providing language support between 2014 and 2016, growing from 89 to 159 participants. Even though they only comprised 12 percent of Minneapolis’s total judges, they made up 30 percent of those with secondary language skills.

Montgomery County, Maryland has gone beyond working with high schoolers to mobilize middle school students too, bringing students as young as sixth graders into the polls through a program called Future Vote. Future Vote aims to increase future voter knowledge, by strengthening ties to specific participation and emphasizing the importance of participatory democracy. Dr. Gilberto Zelaya, Outreach Coordinator with Montgomery County, shared that since 2004, the program has worked with approximately 38,500 students and 21,500 families. These students have uniquely bolstered the county’s language support overall. For the general election, a third of the students who served had language capacity in another something other than English, helping to cover 68 languages.

Jurisdictions can complement and expand the reach of traditional outreach methods such as engaging community-based organizations and ethnic media, by leveraging social media platforms. Harris County, Texas utilizes Twitter and Facebook to promote it’s #StepUpToServe campaign, which is geared toward recruiting Election Day poll workers, especially bilingual English, Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese speakers. The effort, which targeted civic-minded professionals, and retirees, but namely high school students and their parents, has had over 100 students apply to help with this year’s election. Harris County officials, Hector DeLeon and Kristina Nichols, confirmed that meeting their language coverage was a top priority. “In particular it was hard to find people who speak both Vietnamese and English, but high school students are able to fill this role in a unique way, because they more readily available than college students and they’re excited to make a little money,” said Kristina Nichols. Incredibly, most of the students who applied spoke a language other than English. Harris County officials have been thrilled with the results and continue to rely on social media and visits to local high schools to spread the word for more recruits in 2018.

The elections official’s own internal community – city and county government workers – is another ripe source for recruiting bilingual poll workers. For example, in Maricopa County, Arizona, officials created an online survey to solicit poll workers from county departments as well as from the staff of the municipalities and school districts in their borders. Maricopa County designated the time to work on Election Day as civic duty pay so employees do not have to use personal time off. The simple act of emphasizing civic duty within their own ranks provides support across departments and has leveraged the professionalism of their own employees, many of whom have bilingual skills. This has been a tremendous resource of individuals who already have a lot of the training needed for providing bilingual services to the community.

Finally, some jurisdictions have turned to the legislative process to expand the pool of potential bilingual poll workers. In California, community advocates worked to pass a bill, with key support from the California Secretary of State and the California Association of Election Officials, to have legal permanent residents (LPRs) become eligible to become poll workers. The bill was even expanded to include high school students who are LPRs. In 2013, Los Angeles County conducted a pilot project and they were able to recruit 200 bilingual poll workers that are legal permanent residents.

Poll workers play such an important role in our elections – they can inspire confidence in our election system, which is sorely needed today as apathy and lack of confidence abound in our elections. But they can only do so when properly educated, trained and prepared to address the needs of voters at the polls. This is particularly the case for voters experiencing language barriers, who may find the process and materials very confusing and daunting. To have a set of quality poll workers at your polling locations, jurisdictions must have a proactive recruitment plan in place and must look at innovative ways to encourage people to serve as poll workers. Many jurisdictions have already done some good thinking and work on this front and others should replicate these methods for future elections.

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