Students to work election day polls

Posted on May 2, 2002

[Democracy Dispatches]

Students May Be One Solution to Poll Worker Shortage
Although it is easy to overlook their importance amidst election reform debates about voting machines, hanging chads, and provisional ballots, poll workers are a crucial element to smooth and fair elections. It is the poll worker, after all, who will put into practice the newly passed election reform laws when they really matter – on election day. Yet major poll worker dilemmas continue to plague election officials and voting rights advocates: ensuring that poll workers are properly trained, ensuring that they uphold the law in an equitable fashion, and finding enough people to serve as poll workers on election day. Some states and the U.S. House of Representatives have recently passed legislation to solve the latter problem by recruiting poll workers from area high schools and colleges.

Legislators hope that by allowing young people to work at the polls, they will both encourage them to vote when they turn 18 and also find enough workers to staff the polls on election day. The practice has already worked well in some states and localities, such as Cook County, Illinois, where 520 high school students served as election judges in the March primary. Election officials cite many reasons why they cannot find enough staff, from the 14-hour workday and low wages to the fact that most people have to be at other jobs on election day. To remedy the situation, officials in Orange County, California have encouraged county employees to take a break from their usual jobs to volunteer at the polls on election day. Others have advocated making election day a holiday to free up people who have other jobs.

The election reform bill approved by the House in December, H.R. 3295, would establish programs and appropriate funds to encourage high school and college students to work at the polls. That bill will soon be reconciled with the Senate election reform bill in joint conference committee. At the state level, Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) approved a bill (H.B. 1445) on April 1 that will allow two high school students per precinct to serve as student interns on election day. Interns must be at least 16 years old, must be recommended by a school principal, and will be allowed to perform all but a few of the duties assigned to poll workers. In Indiana, Gov. Frank O’Bannon (D) approved similar legislation (H.B. 1101) on March 28 that will allow 16 and 17 year-olds with good grades to serve as poll clerks or election sheriffs. And on April 9 Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton (D) signed a bill (H.B. 251) granting one day of excused absence from school for 18 year-old students who serve as election officers. Palm Beach Post 12/9/01, St. Louis Dispatch 1/10/02, Los Angeles Times 2/20/02, Chicago Tribune 3/22/02, Boston Globe 3/24/02, Statenet


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