The country is in desperate need of more volunteer poll workers, who spend 14- to 15-hour days making sure people can exercise their right to vote. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is claiming Democrats’ effort to get more federal workers to help is actually a corrupt scheme to steal elections.
The Democrats’ proposal is part of a major voting rights, campaign finance and ethics reform bill that McConnell has railed against for weeks. Along with making Election Day a federal holiday, the For The People Act would give federal workers up to six days off to train and work the polls for elections.
“This is the Democrat plan to restore democracy?” McConnell asked. “A brand-new week of paid vacation for every federal employee who would like to hover around while you cast your ballot?”
McConnell’s implication is clear: working the polls is an easy job that presents the opportunity for corrupt interference.
In reality, poll workers are holding elections together. Being a poll worker is hard work that is mostly done by senior citizens and retirees who have time to volunteer. Polling places are routinely understaffed and workers are often undertrained. There is little to no evidence of poll workers committing voter fraud.
“Poll workers really ensure that our democracy can function appropriately,” said Aerion Abney, Pennsylvania state director for All Voting Is Local, a voting rights nonprofit.
“And without poll workers, we can’t really hold elections,” he said.
That’s one of the reasons behind the poll workers provision in the legislation. Bipartisan federal election commissions and local election officials around the country have raised the alarm about persistent shortages of volunteers. These shortages lead to long lines and other problems for voters throughout the country.
“It is a real challenge anymore to find poll workers. People don’t seem to be as interested,” Bobbie Holsclaw, the Jefferson County clerk in Kentucky, told a hearing about election security in the state just before the 2018 midterms.
Nearly 65 percent of jurisdictions reported that it was either “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to attract volunteer poll workers, according to a 2016 report by the Election Assistance Commission. This problem was especially acute in the most populated jurisdictions, where 88 percent found it either very or somewhat difficult to recruit enough poll workers.
States, counties and the federal government have offered a range of solutions over the years. Some states and counties pay poll workers an hourly salary. Others encourage or allow local government employees to take paid leave to work the polls. The federal government suggested that jurisdictions recruit high school students to work the polls.
The For The People Act’s provision that would provide paid leave to federal workers to volunteer as poll workers is based on local policies providing paid leave to county employees and the 2013 report of a bipartisan commission on election administration convened by former President Barack Obama.
That report recommended that states give county employees paid leave to work the polls. Safeguards could be put in place “disallowing county employee poll worker service if the official to whom they report is a candidate on the ballot,” it states.
The For The People Act provision would allow the federal Office of Personnel Management to write regulations “setting the terms and conditions” for federal workers taking paid leave to work the polls. The Hatch Act already bans federal workers from using their official position to influence elections.
This provision is one of many that could reduce problems at polling places on Election Day, according to Abney, whose organization worked to fill a shortage of poll workers in Pennsylvania in 2018.
In the meantime, elected officials like McConnell shouldn’t “discourage people from wanting to participate in the process,” Abney said. Instead, they should appreciate the volunteers that allow elections to happen.
“We don’t give enough appreciation and value to poll workers and what they do to uphold our democracy,” he said.