Is Working the Polls Like Jury Duty?

The new Ohio Secretary of State, Jennifer L. Brunner, is proposing that poll workers be conscripted, like jurors. She is asking the legislature to require residents to work at the polls the way they fulfill jury duty.

The entire proposal, which is reported in the NY Times, is interesting but you need to disentangle several aspects of her view, which the Times does not really do well. Here are the issues:

  1. Should being a poll worker be a manditory duty of citizenship?
  2. Should poll workers work from opening to closing?
  3. Do you need partisan balance among poll workers?
  4. Are poll workers old?

On the first point, it is important to remember that being a juror is required only inasmuch as you have to show up to be in a pool. The lawyers then throw out the “bad apples”–people with bias–to get what is a likely fair pool of jurors. Being a poll worker should be similar, if it is a requirement. For example, imagine a polling place with a couple of milquetoast poll workers and one flaming partisan who thinks provisional balloting is inherently wrong or that any ID requirement is wrong. You could easily get chaos as a result.

One solution is to provide incentives for county employees to be poll workers by allowing them the day off and paying them the poll worker salary as well. This is done in Los Angeles and other jurisdictions and may improve the quality of the poll worker pool.

Second, should poll workers work from opening to closing? Here, there are several competing interests. On the one hand, having one set of poll workers allows for clear chain of custody for everything in the precinct; if something screws up, we know where to point the figure. Having multiple crews screws this up, potentially. On the other hand, it is very inefficient to have one team all day; not only do they get tired and more likely to make mistakes at day’s end, but they also over-staff polling places at mid-day when traffic is at its ebb so that there are enough workers at opening and closing. Balancing this may require having some people work all day and some work at the ends of the election day.

Third, there is the question of partisan balance. When I was growing up in Georgia, I assumed all poll workers were non-partisan because Georgia does not have party registration for voters. If I had grown up in Ohio, I would have thought all poll workers represented partisan interests. The point here is simple; poll workers don’t have to be partisans. The problem with Ohio isn’t that the poll workers may not have complete partisan balance in every precinct. The problem is that outside observers cannot observe polling place operations on election day! If the Secretary really wants to improve election operations, this would be one place to start.

Finally, the article makes claims about the age of poll workers. Here, we just don’t have good data to generalize. I am aware of only 6 studies of poll workers that involve actual surveys of poll workers. Four were conducted by my friends at Brigham Young University and I have conducted the other two. Poll workers in Ohio are old, but there is a range of ages represented in the pool. Moreover, the poll workers in Utah are 10 years younger, on average, than those in Ohio. The point being, we should not generalize about poll workers without good data.

Finally, Doug Lewis is absolutely correct when he says to the NY Times that he “would prefer the Ohio initiative on a smaller scale along the lines of tests in small, medium and large counties. ‘I think we need to keep an open mind but realize that some of these ideas may not be as convenient as they appear at first blush,’ Mr. Lewis said.”

Pilot testing of election ideas; now THAT is a novel concept!