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Missouri short on poll workers

October 04, 2004
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - With less than one month remaining before Election Day, local officials say they are having difficulty staffing Missouri's polling places and fear many positions will go unfilled.

In June, DeForest Soaries, the chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said the United States was 500,000 workers shy of the two million needed to run this November's election.

Poll workers in Missouri are hired and trained on a local level. While some areas say they already have enough staff for election day others are still struggling to find workers.

"At this point we are probably short by close to 1000 people," said David Welch, the director of St. Louis County's Board of Elections. "That is about 20 percent of our total."

Welch attributes the difficulty in attracting workers to the demanding nature of the job. Poll workers in his district are paid an average of $8 an hour and are expected to arrive at 5:15 a.m. and remain until after the poll closes at 7p.m., he said.

Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said she has the same problem.

"It's a long day and it is not easy," Noren said. "They're expected to be accountants, civil rights attorneys, heavy equipment operators, customer service specialists, all these things wrapped up into one."

During the past several decades, officials have had difficulty attracting younger people the to position. The average U.S. poll worker is now 72 years old, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission.

There has been no official survey of poll workers in Missouri but officials said they have seen a considerable graying effect.

"I think it's time younger people step up and assist them in this effort," Welch said. "When we look at 2000 and the concerns people had about that I think it just reinforces how important this is. When people get overworked, rushed and understaffed mistakes happen."

Another problem is finding enough representatives from both parties to serve as judges. Striking a balance can be difficult in areas that lean heavily towards either major political party.

"We can find an ample supply of Democratic judges, but we can't work them without their counterpart," said Sharon Turner-Buie, who heads the Board of Elections in heavily Democratic Kansas City. "Certainly the results show that there are many Republicans in the area but they chose not to work as election judges."

Several counties have combated the shortage by hiring high school students to provide the judges with support.

"I thought at one time there would be some conflicts," said Buchanan County Clerk Pat Conroy. "Even the elderly judges have identified with the young people. It's been a real win-win situation."

A potential problem for future elections is that many of the elderly judges have shown a disinterest in learning the skills necessary to administer an electronic ballot.

"Many people are afraid of the election equipment and not accustomed to it," said Turner-Buie. "There is a fear factor, which I understand."

One official thinks that the technologically savvy teens brought in through high school programs will ease the transition to electronic voting and become the next generation of judges.

"Hopefully, as they get older and they get registered to vote they will want to participate," said Churck Pryor, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office.

Citizens interested in becoming poll workers should contact their local election board or county clerk.