Poll worker shortage? Alabama officials not concerned, but recruiting high students and others underway – AL.com

Abby Morrison, a member of the Class of 2020 at Hokes Bluff High School, works alongside a poll worker during in Etowah County. (photo courtesy of Jill Boatwright).
Jill Boatwright’s advanced placement government class at Hokes Bluff High School will send about a two dozen or so students to the polls on Election Day, where they will work the computerized pollbooks, greet voters and hand out stickers.
“It’s young people and adults, some over 60, interacting with a new generation,” said Boatwright, a 32-year high school teacher. “We’ve done it for the past three to four years now and it’s been one of my best activities.”
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It’s one program that probate judges in Alabama are hoping will build up a bench of poll workers as concerns rise nationwide about a shortage of election workers.
Alabama probate judges say they do not share similar fears expressed in other states by election administrators ahead of this year’s midterm elections.
Those concerns focus on fewer poll workers who dropped out over fears of COVID-related risks related to their age. Poll workers, by and large, are retirees.
Others say that working the polls on Election Day is simply not worth the hassle following the fallout from the 2020 presidential election. Reports in other states showed election workers harassed by election deniers.
Alabama is not immune. Some probate judges say it’s more difficult to recruit new poll workers than in years past and are urging state lawmakers to examine the job’s pay. Poll workers make $100 for contributing to a full day of work that often begins at 6 a.m. and does not end until well after the polls close at 7 p.m.
Some lawmakers say that intimidation, played out in the national media following the fallout of the 2020 presidential election, is also playing a role in some places.
“I know people I’ve approached who have been poll workers historically for years and they told me, ‘No, I don’t want to get mixed up in that anymore,’” said State Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile. “It speaks to all of the things that Republicans are putting in place that pressure these folks who are civic-minded and who want to do the right thing … to make (the public think) they are doing something criminally wrong.”
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill speaks at a "We the People" rally on Saturday, December 12, 2020, at the Town Center Park in Spanish Fort, Ala. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).
Overall, though, the state’s leading election official is not anticipating much to be worried about this fall.
Secretary of State John Merrill, whose office oversees the state’s elections, believes the state won’t be faced with an issue of not having enough poll workers for general election on Nov. 8.
The biggest concern in 2022, cited by probate judges around the state, was a shortage of poll workers during the May 24 primary since that election fell around the same time as graduations and the start of summer vacations.
Related story: Why turnout stunk in Alabama during Tuesday’s primary: ‘People just don’t show up for these things’
“We don’t anticipate any problems,” said Tallapoosa County Probate Judge Talmadge East. “We are a little light in places, and we would like to have extra people if someone gets sick or doesn’t show up or has a family emergency. But poll worker buy-in is good and we feel comfortable with the people we have.”
Probate judges have until October 19 before they can appoint poll workers, but recruitment is underway.
While not concerned about having enough poll workers, Merrill is still among those trying to stir up interest in participating in this year’s election. His office issued a news release earlier this month encouraging Alabamians to serve their community as a poll worker.
He said that 1,980 polling places across 67 counties need to be staffed for the election.
“You can never have enough poll workers,” Merrill said. “You have to be prepared. In order to be prepared, you have to make sure you’ve done your due diligence.”
A mix of ages gather at a polling site in Etowah County. The county has utilized over 70 high school students in recent years to help out as poll workers. (photo courtesy of Jill Boatwright).
The news release also encourages youths to participate. A state law passed in 2019, allows high school students ages 16 or older to apply to become a student worker intern. Participants need to have permission from a school principal or school official.
Some county probate judges are taking charge and pushing to recruit more of the youths.
In Etowah County, county commissioners appropriated $50 to each student who participated in the poll worker program last year.
The program is seeing success. With 36 polling sites, and two of the student interns placed at each location, more than 70 students were tapped to participate (72 are assigned to the polling site, and a few additional student poll workers assist the probate judge’s office).
Probate Judge Scott Hassell said that all the city and the county school systems participate. During the primaries, he had 150 students apply to participate in the election.
“The response is greater than the number I can utilize,” Hassell said.
The students are limited in what they can do. Anyone under age 18 cannot handle a ballot, nor can they determine the eligibility of a voter. But the students are allowed to serve as greeters and, more importantly, assist poll workers with the electronic pollbooks.
Boatright said the students sent from Hokes Bluff High School are among “our top academic students” and those she trusts to spend an entire day at a polling site.
She said the students are familiar and at ease with utilizing the electronic pollbooks, whereas older generations might feel more uncomfortable.
“They can help with introducing the technology,” said Boatwright. “I know that the adult feedback to me has been nothing but good when I talk to the community (poll) workers. They are thankful for the students who are there and who are helpful.”
Hassell said he is hoping the county commission will consider adding enough funding to provide a stipend for the students ahead of the November election. The county’s fiscal year does not begin until October 1, and a final county budget has not been adopted.
He said that Etowah County might be the exception in offering the students pay and credits a handful of teachers – including Boatright – for drumming up enthusiasm for the program.
“It’s far surpassed my expectations,” he said. “With all of the craziness going on in the world, to see the kids get excited about it and to see a 17-year-old kid sitting next to an 85-year-old and they are interacting and having fun, it kind of transcends the election and develops a relationship for two generations.”
Other counties have reached out to high schoolers as well, but do not provide extra compensation.
Franklin County Probate Judge Barry Moore had about eight high school students work within the small county’s 24 precincts during the 2020 elections.
He said the idea is to have the students interact positively with the older poll workers and to mold them for a future of volunteerism.
“The goal is to get them to be election workers in the future,” said Moore.
Some of the larger counties have had difficulty in recruiting the students as they focus on attracting enough adults to participate in the coming election.
Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge Rob Robertson said he initially had a program that included a mix of older high school and college students assist in past elections.
He said the program dipped in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he is hoping for more interest this fall.
“The traditional poll worker who worked at the polls for years loved it,” said Robertson. “They loved the younger generation there helping out and learning … it was a positive.”
Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis said he’s had a harder time generating interest. He said that overall, it’s difficult from a practicality standpoint in getting high school students participating in the election.
“We had some contacts with the local schools about it,” said Davis. “(When the students) found out they had to be there at 6 a.m. and the hours of the polls (staying open until 7 p.m.), they said ‘forget it.’ So, we haven’t had success with it.”
There would be a usefulness for having the students involved. Davis said that in Mobile County, half of the poll workers during the primary and runoff elections this year “did not have email addresses.” A third of them, he said, did not have cell phones.
“It makes it very difficult to communicate with them in general,” said Davis. “And if they don’t have email addresses, their computer skills are probably not very good. So, we are trying our best to support our poll workers. We want success at our polls on Election Day.”
Davis recently had the Mobile County Commission OK an approximately $25,000 expenditure to advertise for approximately 100 “computer tech” workers who can assist the poll workers.
The tech workers would assist in operating machines and making sure Wi-Fi systems are operating adequately.
“In Mobile County, my guess is that the average age of (poll workers) is 65 to 75 years old age,” said Davis, who is 65. “My generation, this generation, is not well-versed in computer skills.”
Merrill said the success of the election operation falls on the probate judges, though his office is willing to assist when called upon.
“If any probate judge finds themselves in a vulnerable position and feeling like they don’t have adequate poll workers, it’s on them,” he said. “We have expressed our interest in helping them and we also indicated that we will be the bell cow to sound the horn for people to know that ‘if you want to do this, these are the steps to take.’”
He added, “It’s important to note that we want to help them to make sure they ae properly prepared.”
Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University and a longtime observer of state politics, said the responsibilities for probate judges to adequately staff the polling places is becoming more difficult in recent years.
He said the solution to resolving a poll worker shortage should not be with utilizing teenagers.
He suggested that veterans’ groups should be more involved in the process, and that is something that Robertson in Tuscaloosa County said is “probably an area we could focus on more.”
Brown also said that given the 12-hour days, and the lack of in-person absentee voting in Alabama, more compensation should be provided to poll workers.
“If we have a decent turnout, and you get the entire electorate minus a token amount that vote absentee, they all show up at once during a 12-hour period,” said Brown. “If we continue with that, then we have to take a serious look at recruitment and compensation for poll workers.”
Pike County Probate Judge Michael Bunn said he believes state officials will make a push to increase poll worker pay. Most counties set their rates at the state’s minimum of $100 for the entire day. Alabama shares that pay amount with 13 other states including Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Poll inspectors earn $125 for the day.
Some counties add extra amounts to the pay. Chief inspectors in Jefferson County earn $200 per day, while a full-day poll worker earns $150.
The Alabama Democratic Party recognizes that it can be a mix of success for recruiting poll workers.
“We rely on our county parties to do a great deal of that work,” said Tabitha Isner, vice-chair of the state Democratic Party. “In some places, being a poll worker is a point of pride. In other places, it’s a constant struggle to find people who are willing or able to take a day off work for a meager wage.”
The struggles are a reason the party supports making Election Day a federal holiday, she said.
The Alabama Republican Party’s executive director Reed Phillips said one advantage in Alabama is that poll workers can serve anywhere in the county they reside, not just the precincts where they live, “making it easier to fill those positions.”
He said the Alabama GOP, which is by far the dominate party in holding elected office in Alabama, has an open line with Merrill’s office and with the probate judges and is prepared to help if needed.
“If there are any issues recruiting and hiring workers, the (state Republican Party) and our county party organizations are here to assist in any way we can,” Phillips said.
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