Voting Complexity Takes Toll in Hiring for Polls

States around the country are trying to find and train enough poll-workers to staff the Nov. 7 midterm elections. The increasing complexity of voting procedures and equipment makes it harder to recruit. Maryland and Ohio are providing refresher courses after problems in their primaries were attributed in part to poll-workers.

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The nation needs a few good poll workers. Actually it needs a lot of them. With election day just two weeks away, officials say they are still short of the one and a half million people needed to work at the polls. An increasingly complex voting process has made well trained workers more important than ever. But it's also scared some volunteers away.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Poll working can sometimes be a thankless job with long hours and low pay. It has also become very complicated. After widespread problems at Maryland's polls in September, the state decided that many of its poll workers needed more training.

Unidentied Woman #1: I need your signature here, sir.

FESSLER: So 200 election judges, that's what they're called here, gathered in downtown Baltimore last week to check in from mandatory refresher course.

Unidentified Woman #2: You can take the stairs here or you can go down this hallway and take the elevator to the second floor.

FESSLER: Almost everyone here opts for the elevator. This is a pretty typical group, mostly female and mostly elderly. Upstairs, the poll workers are hit with a cacophony of directions on everything from opening the polls to setting up voting machines.

Mr. LYLE HANDERSON (Poll Worker Instructor): Unlock the leg, the lower leg and pull, then lock. Pull and lock.

FESSLER: Instructor Lyle Handerson extends thin legs from a black plastic box that's about to become one of the scorekeepers of democracy.

Mr. HANDERSON: We then rotate on its side. Place our foot at the end to prevent siding.

FESSLER: The poll workers watch intently as Handerson flips the box over, ahough some look confused. They might not have to set up the voting machines but these judges are learning an important election day skill - troubleshooting. It's enough to make your head spin.

Mr. HANDERSON: Your trainer will only plug in to the USB connections. Your network connection will only plug in to the network connection. If the power -

Unidentified Woman: Yu take this filled envelope and the remaining attached piece and place them both into this bag.

Mr. HANDERSON: It just popped out. See it pop out. If I know who the voter was I write on his receipt, cancelled ballot.

FESSLER: These poll workers say they're thrilled to be getting this extra training. In the primary, some of them never saw the new equipment until they got to their precinct.

Mr. NATHANIEL WAISTBROD(ph): The training for the primary was a real mess.

FESSLER: Nathaniel Waistbrod is one of the few young people here, a graduate student in computer science. He says there wasn't enough time to learn lots of things including complicated procedures to protect the voting machines from tampering.

Mr. WAISTBROD: And then, you put more skills in the keyhole and on the machine and you write those numbers down. And then at the end of the election, you pull those off, check them again and write from down again then you put new numbers on, and then you're done. So the primary, none of that happened.

FESSLER: At least not in his precinct. Paul de Gregorio, head of the Federal Election Assistance Commission says it's a challenge everywhere. About a third of nation is using new voting equipment this year. There are also new idea requirements and special machines for the disabled.

Mr. PAUL DE GREGORIO (Federal Election Assistance Commission): We're asking somebody to come in, you know, to serve as a poll worker, they might want to try and see here. To learn all these rules.

FESSLER: The result is a lot of last minute training and recruitment. Chicago still needs 1,200 election judges. Baltimore County needs about 250 more. Boom county Missouri needs a 100.

Mr. DE GREGORIO: Americans live busy lives. And many of them, you know, don't have time to serve as a poll worker. It's, you know, a situation where you have to connect to, you know, 14 to 16 hours a day.

FESSLER: So the Election Assistance Commission is trying to recruit more college students to work at the polls. It's also asking companies to give their employees time off if they volunteer. Poll worker pay has also been raised. In Baltimore, election judges now get $150.

Ms. PEGGY TRANDAL: I love to work this machine. I love this machine.

FESSLER: But it's clear that a lot of people don't do it for the money. In Baltimore, poll worker Peggy Trandal is upbeat despite all she has to learn.

Ms. TRANDAL: I read my book. They sent a big book and we (unintelligible) when we go to the poll and in case something is wrong we go to the book and look in the book. That's all we have to do.

FESSLER: Her precinct was shorthanded on primary day, but she says you just have to make do. Charlette Patterson agrees. She's been working the polls for eight years now and says she has no plans to stop.

Ms. CHARLOTTE PATTERSON (Poll Worker): In 1980, I got my voter's card and I've been voting ever since. I got involved in the election judge. That's a right that I was given. it's a Constitutional right and I'm going to keep on going.

FESSLER: That's the spirit that election officials hope will get them through this election day, with as many workers and as few problems as possible.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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