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Votes

Poll Workers:Making the System Work

As long-time poll workers age, replacements are hard to find.

t>Poll workers arrived early at the polls before they even opened to ensure the paper and electronic systems that enable Americans to cast their vote in the Presidential election were in order. Many would spend a long, tiring day getting long lines of voters through the process. ItÕs tiring work for most but especially for older poll workers.

Estimates peg the age of the average poll worker between 65 and 75 years. Though some younger Americans are stepping up to take on this civic duty, many wonder about the future of the election process as more and more of the seniors who traditionally staff these jobs decline in ranks and ability.

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a federal election requires roughly 2 million poll workers. In the 2000 election there were 1.4 million workers. Many of those indicated they would not serve in the 2004 election, leaving at one point a deficit of half a million poll workers in the weeks leading up to the election. That gap was cut in half with heavy recruitment efforts.

Kay Stimson, EAC communications director, said that reports of the average age being in the 70s are unsubstantiated but close to the mark. ÒThere is some question internally about where that number came from. But there is no question they are older. Everybody says 71 or 72 years old is the average age. We think itÕs a little lower but nobody disagrees they are a generation of older people who are retirement age with a real democratic tradition.Ó

Stimson had no statistics available on the reason so many poll workers would not be returning to serve during this election. However, it is estimated that thousands of people from the World War II generation die each month, leaving their numbers dwindling rapidly.

THE TREND TOWARD the Greatest Generation being actively involved in the election process, says Stimson, came about pragmatically. ÒItÕs a tradition that has to do with our history. Women didnÕt used to work and they did volunteer work. These days youÕve got two-parent working households so the only people left are the retirees,Ó Stimson said.

McLean poll worker Olivia Jenney is 75 years old. ÒI donÕt think itÕs a generational thing. The poll workers here are the ones who are home during the day. The stay-at-home moms tend to have kids and thereÕs no way they could take a couple of hours to do this. Frankly, I think it has to do with accessibility,Ó said Jenney.

Younger people, in JenneyÕs experience, gravitate toward more flexible parts of the voting process such as working the phones.

Joan Morton has been a poll worker for several years. She is typical of the average poll worker in age. Her reasons for coming out are also similar. ÒI know they have trouble getting people to do it and itÕs important to do,Ó said Morton.

An underlying issue for the EAC had been the ability of a World War II generation of poll workers to adapt to the new electronic voting. ItÕs a generation that often does not utilize computers and electronic devices such as cell phones on the same scale as younger generations do.

EAC Chairman DeForest Soaries said, ÒVoting has become more complicated and new federal laws that mandate new voting procedures including provisional ballots in every polling place make the need for trained Election Day workers more urgent than ever.Ó

ÒWe looked to see if it was an issue. They did a survey in Georgia, where itÕs all electronic voting, and it revealed it didnÕt matter what your age was in how comfortable people are. Older poll workers were just as happy, if not happier, with the new equipment. It was surprising to us,Ó said Stimson.

Overcoming the age gap in poll workers may take some creative thinking in future federal elections. Soaries has called for corporations to afford the same privileges to poll workers as they would to an employee serving in other civic capacities. He believes that allowing workers to take the election day to serve on the polls should not be penalized with a personal or vacation day. ÒWe need the same corporate support for Americans serving elections that we have for Americans serving jury duty,Ó said Soaries.

Betty Kelson, a 75-year-old poll worker in McLean, thinks moving the date of the election could encourage younger Americans to become poll workers in the future. ÒI advocate for weekend voting, like they have in Europe. People work and they just canÕt get away,Ó said Kelson.

Around the area there are signs that new generations of citizens recognize the problem and the need to become involved.

IN GREAT FALLS, 31-year-old Jon Brookfield served as a poll worker at Great Falls Elementary School. ÒIt was intriguing to me that most poll workers were older. IÕve noticed it in the past when voting,Ó said Brookfield.

As a waiter at the Old Brogue in Great Falls, Brookfield has the luxury of setting his schedule to allow for the time to be a poll worker. ÒI just wanted to do my civic duty, to do my part. IÕm in a position where I can do this because I work at night,Ó Brookfield said. He took his own initiative to track down the Web site listing poll worker information and then took the training class to complete the requirements.

Beverly Evans has plans to recruit poll workers for the next election. A baby boomer from Great Falls, Evans said she plans to hold a party or dinner at her house and invite friends to get involved. ÒMaybe that could be a way I recruit friends, offer to have them over to dinner. This is a way you can make a difference,Ó Evans said.

EAC Commissioner Paul DeGregoria said of the poll worker initiative, ÒPoll workers serve as the backbone of democracy. Their participation makes elections and voting possible. November 2nd provide[s] Americans with an opportunity to serve their fellow citizens as poll workers, and make our democracy work.Ó

Under the recently passed Help America Vote Act, money has been set aside to train college students to be poll workers, according to Stimson. ÒThe college poll worker initiative is a great program that has federal funding set aside to get younger people involved. We think this is going to make a difference in the future,Ó Stimson said.