Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Poll Workers And Better Elections

As the legislative session came to a close on June 24th, there was an unsurprising flurry of late-night, last minute activity that has become the hallmark of the New York State Legislature. Among the many bills that both houses passed was legislation that will direct New York’s long-awaited shift to a new election system. The legislation passed by the Senate and Assembly will allow each county in the state, and New York City as a whole, to be the final arbiter in what kind of new voting machines -- ATM-style or optical scan -- it will purchase.

However, in New York City, replacing the old and dilapidated Shoup 3.2 lever machines is only part of the problem. It’s not just machines, but humans that make a difference. Right now, there are too few poll workers, and those who do exist are too-often ill-informed. Things have to change in order to make sure these workers will be able to help city voters navigate the new system.

That is the conclusion of two new reports that focus on the experience both of voters and poll workers themselves on Election Day, 2004.

“All in all I was horrified that the staffing was so bad,” one poll worker told us.

Both Making Votes Count: 2004 Poll Worker Recruitment Program (in pdf format) from Citizens Union Foundation (which I co-authored), and Report from the Polls: A Survey Of Conditions At The Polls In New York City, Presidential Election November 2, 2004 , from the New York Public Interest Research Group, conclude that the city needs to do a better job of ensuring that their poll workers are better-trained and equipped to handle the onrush of voters.

Both surveys found that it is a common occurrence to experience:

  • Absent, inattentive or poorly-trained poll workers
  • Poll sites not completely set up to receive voters first thing in the morning
  • Broken machines
"Too many voters face too many problems at the polls on Election Day," said Neal Rosenstein of NYPIRG. These problems, he said, “continue to burden and disenfranchise voters.”


Mostly Competent

For certain, the large majority of poll workers is competent. These New Yorkers have performed admirably over the years, putting their time in from 5:30 a.m. to at least 9:00 p.m. each election for the greater civic good – and for the $200 paycheck, (a stipend amount that has not been raised in four years). They help first-time voters operate the lever machines, they assist voters with disabilities in and out of the polling locations, and they interpret materials and information for those voters that are not proficient in English. They do this each election and they get little in the way of thanks.

But according to the findings of the two organizations, a cadre of poll workers are not lifting their weight, and often times they don’t show up at all, or come and go as they please.

“Our poll site coordinator did not arrive till 5 minutes before the polls were set to open,” quipped a survey respondent, “that would explain why we opened late.”

The inability to have the poll site up and running first thing in the morning is cited as one of the factors that cause many of the long lines that voters experience on Election Day. For those voters rushing to get to the polls and vote before heading off to work this can be the deciding factor in whether or not they cast their ballots.

The Origin Of Incompetence: The Party Patronage System

Under federal law, New York has until September 2006 to revamp its voting system to comply with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Adopted in 2002, HAVA was passed after the flaws in our nation’s election system were exposed en masse to an international audience during the 2000 Presidential election. HAVA is intended to eliminate ‘hanging’ and ‘pregnant’ chads and to ensure that presidents are elected by the people, and not selected by the courts.

New York City waited all this time for word from the legislature in Albany on what our new voting machines and system would look like. It now turns out that the city’s Board of Elections must purchase them on their own.

This adds to the daunting challenges it already has -- not only to recruit the body of 30,000 temporary workers needed for Election Day, but also to train these workers adequately to carry out their jobs professionally. They are further hampered by their inability to appoint the most qualified poll workers throughout the city.

The power of party control over poll worker appointment, and the entire structure of the Board of Elections in general, is one of the last remaining vestiges of the party partronage system that is still codified in State law. Both the New York State Constitution and the State Election Law require a bipartisan election administration, with equal numbers of each of the two major parties. It is the same with poll workers; each poll site must have equal numbers of the two major parties. Republican and Democratic district leaders submit poll worker nominations to the board. The parties have until July 15th prior to the election to submit their nominations. At that point if these lists aren’t complete the board assigns workers.

While the Board of Elections does have the ability to weed out some incompetent poll workers, those appointed by the parties are difficult to remove or sanction because they are protected by party leaders. These are the troublesome poll workers that should be replaced. It is not just irksome when poll workers show up late, or do not show up at all, or when they are inattentive or uninformed. This also creates long lines and turns voters away from the polls on Election Day.

While both groups agree that the board has made strides in improving the quality of New York electoral processes, several key recommendations have been advanced, outside of the elimination of the patronage system, to ensure a more efficient Election Day poll worker operation.

Some Recommendations

Among our list of recommendations, Citizens Union Foundation and NYPIRG urge the board to collaborate with the city to institute a pilot program that would allow non-emergency municipal workers to volunteer to work as poll workers on Election Day while receiving their normal pay plus a poll-worker bonus, as well as increasing the compensation for poll workers and voting machine technicians. The groups also recommend that all poll workers go through proper training programs and that all polls are completely set up and ready to receive voters at least 20 minutes prior to the opening of the polls on election days.

As the Board of Elections makes preparations to move to the era of new machines, these suggestions might help make that transition less burdensome for New York City voters.

Doug Israel is the public policy and advocacy director of Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette 

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