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Reinforcing Voting's Front Line

by Andrea Senteno, May 29, 2008
Photo by Joe Holmes
Photo (cc) Joe Holmes

If the presidential primaries of the past few months are any indication, many more New Yorkers than usual may go to the polls this fall. At the same time, the city and state plan to start making changes in the way we vote. New ballot marking devices, designed to make it possible for disabled people to cast their votes independently, will make their way into every polling location across the city and state by September. Further changes will almost certainly follow in 2009 and 2010.

The front-line responsibility for making sure all of this goes as smoothly as possible will fall on the city's approximately 30,000 Election Day poll workers. With this in mind, the city Board of Elections wants to increase the number of poll workers, train them better and pay them more.

Help Wanted

The city estimates it will need an additional 8,616 poll workers to operate the new ballot marking devices. The Board of Elections plans to place approximately three poll workers dedicated specifically to working the ballot marking devices at each of the city's 1,350 poll sites. The board is also proposing putting at least one poll coordinator at the 390 polling locations that currently do not have one because of their small size. These coordinators would ensure every site has backup assistance for the ballot marking devices. "It is crucial for each poll site to have a coordinator to manage the two systems' operations and address any problems that arise," said the executive director of the city board, Marcus Cederqvist, in testimony at a recent City Council budget hearing.

All these additional workers will cost money. Cederqvist testified that 8,600 new poll workers would cost the city $1.7 million per election. This assumes that each poll worker receives the current stipend of $200 per Election Day worked, as well as a proposed increase for completing training and a bonus for working all elections in a given cycle. The board expects the additional poll site coordinators to cost $234,000 for this year's September primary and November general election elections.

Improving Training

Beyond adding poll workers, the city wants to attract better trained people to staff voting places on Election Day and encourage them to keep their poll worker positions. To accomplish this, the board would like to increase pay and provide incentives so poll workers will take -- and complete -- training courses.

Poll workers currently are expected to go through a three-hour training session and pass an open book test before they work at the polls. While advocates have always seen training as essential to ensuring a well prepared and competent poll worker force, the new equipment makes training more important than ever, since poll workers will need to have a strong grasp of how the machines operate and how they can be used.

To accommodate the expanded training sessions, the city board estimates it will need 40 new adjunct trainers. These adjunct trainers will provide training to instructors who, in turn, are responsible for teaching the city's 30,000 poll workers and additional 8,600 ballot-marking-device poll workers. Trainers receive compensation for attending sessions where they learn all the necessary information. The 40 new trainers who will teach poll workers to staff the ballot marking devices will receive the current $200 for attending.

All together, the city Board of Elections says it will need to add an additional 760 training classes this year and will hold a total of 1,800 classes for the 2008 election cycle. The additional classes will cost $166,000.

For the past few weeks, the board has been deliberating whether to renew a $800,000 contract it had in 2006 and 2007 with the Borough of Manhattan Community College to train adjunct trainers. Concerned that the college might have been over billing the Board of Elections for the training, the election commissioners decided not to continue the arrangement. "The commissioners did not feel the results justified the cost of training done through BMCC," said Valerie Vasquez Rivera, director of communications for the board. Instead the Board of Elections will use their best adjunct trainers to instruct other trainers. Bringing this training in house adds to the growing list of tasks the board needs to complete to prepare poll workers, poll sites, and staff for the arrival of the ballot marking devices and the upcoming presidential election.

Updating the Poll Worker Program

For years, advocacy organizations such as the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the Brennan Center, Citizens Union, Common Cause, New York Public Interest Research Group, League of Women Voters of New York City, and the Women's City Club, have been recommending ways that the Board of Elections could improve poll worker recruitment, training and Election Day operations. With the new machines, the groups argue that poll workers need to be even better prepared and more accountable for what happens at the polls. Some have suggested that poll workers who fail the training test or who don't attend a training session be barred from working at the polls that year. Others have urged the board to hire younger, more technologically savvy poll workers who may be more comfortable with the new voting machines.

While the board has not welcomed all of these suggestions, in budget testimony this year, board officials did recommend a few ways to improve the quality of poll workers. To encourage workers to attend the training session, the board wants to raise the stipend for attending the class from its current $25 to $100. In Cederqvist's written testimony he notes, "The current low compensation for attending the training sessions is reflected by poor attendance." This increase would cost the city $900,600 for the new 8,600 poll workers and $2.3 million for the 30,000 regular poll workers the board employs on Election Day who also are expected to attend a training class each year they work.

At the same time, the board wants to increase the bonus poll workers receive when they attend the training and work at least two elections in one year -- a primary and the general election, say. Currently the bonus is $35 dollars; the board wants to up it to $100, for a total estimated cost of $2.9 million.

The most poll workers now can earn if they work the primary and general elections and attend the training is $460. The proposed changes would allow this same worker to make $600 for the election cycle, a significant increase. The board hopes that will encourage more competent people to apply to become poll workers and then attend training and serve for a number of years.

In total, the city Board of Elections is asking for an additional $10.4 million dollars to fund the additional poll workers, training classes and increases in training compensation and bonuses across the board.

Though many voters barely notice them, poll workers are key to orderly elections. They manage problems, educate voters and cope with confusion. All this will become increasingly important as the city faces a huge transition in voting, making it vital that the Board of Elections have enough poll workers and that they are properly trained.