When things go awry at the voting booth, as they have several times in this hectic primary season, much of the blame often falls on ill-trained poll workers who are paid a pittance.
And there have been some head-scratching moments:
- While folks in Washington were waiting hours to vote under record turnout Feb. 12, poll workers hid electronic voting machines because they didn't like the touch-screen devices.
- On Super Tuesday in Chicago, poll workers passed out pens meant for e-voting machines. When those instruments made no mark on paper ballots, election workers said they were full of invisible ink — an explanation that was upheld by onsite precinct judges.
While some of these snafus defy logic, many can be pinned on poor training, experts say.
"We're running the most important part of our democracy on the backs of untrained, poorly paid volunteers," said Lloyd Leonard, who has helped research poll worker issues for the League of Women Voters. "It's not their fault. Funding is not a priority. They aren't paid much. They try real hard. We should all volunteer and help them out."
There are an estimated 2 million poll workers, the largest one-day work force in the country, according to research published in September by electionline.org, a project of the Pew Center on the States.
Many have only a few hours of training and earn an average of $100 for working up to 16 hours on Election Day -- or, 40 cents more an hour than the federal minimum wage, the survey said.
No national standards
There are no national standards for training poll workers, and compensation is determined by states and local election boards, ranging from a low of zero in Vermont to a high of $325 in some New York jurisdictions. "Low pay, absenteeism, and morale continue to be challenges," the study said.
Added disincentives include serving a public whose members can turn cranky and impatient when kept waiting -- and right now it's all about waiting -- while laboring under a preconception that the work force is a bunch of gray-haired technophobes.
In an intensely competitive primary season with record turnout and an ever-changing landscape of election rules, being a poll worker has rarely been more difficult, according to election advocates.
In California, some poll workers mistakenly asked voters to show their drivers' licenses before casting a ballot, and incorrectly told registered independents they could not vote for a Democratic candidate. Super Tuesday ballots are still being counted in some counties following an avalanche of mail-in and provisional ballots that have some officials ironing bent or folded cards so they can fit into optical scanning machines.
In New York City, election officials recently said that data entry errors were partly to blame for incorrect early results on Super Tuesday which showed 80 districts, including some in Harlem, with zero votes for Barack Obama. Those numbers are being updated and won't affect the final tally, said Board of Elections spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez.
Electronic voting machines have worsened the burden on poll workers, whose average age is 72. Touted as an antidote to the election meltdown of 2000, many states welcomed the new technology and spent millions buying its products. Then problems arose with elderly poll workers who had difficulty operating the ATM-like units. Problems also occurred with the machines themselves, which malfunctioned, switched votes and mysteriously shut down in cases reported across the country.
Several states this year, including delegate-rich California, changed their primaries to paper contests. Ohio's Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, is hurriedly switching to paper ballots for the March 4 state primary, and the secretary of state is requiring 53 counties that use electronic, touch-screen voting machines to make paper ballots available to voters asking for them.
Those last-minute switches, elections monitors said, create more confusion for poll workers whose training abruptly morphed from booting computer screens to passing out paper cards.
Additionally, voters overwhelmed state primaries and caucuses, creating long lines and confusion in places such as Honolulu, where nearly 40,000 Democrats showed up Tuesday to choose home son Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In 2004, the number of Democratic caucus voters was 4,000.
Ohio has its share of poll worker problems that have little to do with the ballot format. In 2006, nearly 20 percent of election volunteers didn't show up in Cuyahoga County, for instance. But a peer review panel also cited poorly trained poll workers in insufficient numbers.
Election officials responded by spending more money on training and by recruiting volunteers from high schools and colleges. Pairing young people with elderly poll workers has been implemented in several states, along with corporate and government programs allowing employees to be poll workers without losing pay.
Volunteers themselves have complained about their training, which varies widely by jurisdiction. Some offer as little as a few hours. Others provide a day or more.
A Cuyahoga County survey found 53 percent of volunteers felt their training didn't prepare them to operate new touch-screen machines for the 2006 election. A 2006 New Mexico canvas of three counties reported that less than 50 percent of poll workers felt they had enough practice time on new machines.
Dan Seligson, an editor at electionline.org, has been a poll worker for three elections in the District of Columbia. He received about two hours of training, he said, which seemed adequate. But older poll workers, faced with a combination of paper ballots and electronic machines, were skeptical of the latter, he said.
"They're leery of it," Seligson said. "They're pretty much set against it."
Most Feb. 12 primary problems concerned running out of ballots, which happened three times at his precinct. There also were Obama supporters who demanded to vote, even though they weren't registered Democrats.
Such demands, and long lines, strained the patience of poll workers who had been at it since before dawn -- and wouldn't be going home until long after dark.
"They're human beings. It's a grueling day," Seligson said. "People can just get on your nerves."