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‘We’re reaching out every way we can’: Pennsylvania election directors seek poll workers for presidential primary

Election directors across the state are ramping up efforts to recruit enough poll workers to run the voting locations

Officials across Pennsylvania are ramping up efforts to recruit enough poll workers to staff voting locations ahead of the April 23 presidential primary.

State-wide, Pennsylvania will need about 45,000 poll workers to staff all 9,000 voting locations by April. The recruitment legwork will fall to county election boards and officials, who will need to recruit and train poll workers despite what experts and officials say is a particularly challenging election landscape.

“There is a shortage of poll workers,” said Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. “It’s a job that has low pay and long hours … the political environment doesn’t help because there’s so much contentiousness associated with this election.”

Recruiting poll workers has historically come with some level of difficulty, but Mr. West pointed to the harassment and threats poll workers and election officials faced nationwide following false claims of systemic voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election as another substantial hurdle.

“There is always a worry that we will turn up short in poll workers, especially in the primary it seems to be harder to get poll workers than the general election,” said Melanie Ostrander, director of elections in Washington County.

That worry comes from issues such as long hours at the polls, low poll worker pay and a lack of young volunteers. Ms.Ostrander and election directors across southwest Pennsylvania are getting creative in order to recruit enough poll workers to staff their precincts ahead of the April primary.

In an update posted last week, Allegheny County election officials said they are still looking for poll workers in Baldwin, Beechview, Brookline, Etna, Forward Township, McCandless, Moon Township, Munhall and Port Vue. The county will need about 6,800 poll workers to staff 1,324 precincts.

Every precinct in Pennsylvania must have a minimum of three election officials, which includes an election Judge responsible for managing the voting process and a majority and minority inspector who assist with administrative needs. The positions are elected every four years, but officials are not obligated to serve the duration of their term.

Clerks and machine inspectors are appointed positions who support the election officials by checking voters in, managing lines and directing them on where to go.

Each election board has adopted different strategies, chief among them is raising poll worker pay through a state-wide election grant program and focusing on recruiting young workers through an initiative that allows 17-year-olds to volunteer with school and parent permission.

“Traditionally, poll workers have skewed older than the general population, it was a lot of retirees and others who we have relied upon,” said David Becker, executive director and founder of The Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonprofit that works with election officials and voters to build trust in elections.

Colin Sisk, director of elections in Beaver County, said the elderly demographic of poll workers is the board’s biggest retention challenge. The demanding poll hours often drive older volunteers to retire. In Pennsylvania, the polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., but volunteers are expected to be there even longer.

“The folks who were willing to be involved and willing to help us are getting to a point in their life where they don’t want to do it because they are older citizens and it’s a long day, it’s a lot,” Mr. Sisk said.

There are 129 precincts in Beaver County, the smallest serves about 40 registered voters, while the largest serves between 1,500 to 1,700 of the county’s 111,964 registered voters each election cycle.

County officials have proposed a half-day solution to make the hours more manageable, but logistics like the swear-in oath and pay delivery have prevented it from being implemented successfully.

Marybeth Kuznik, director of Elections and Voter Registration in Fayette County, said about a half dozen election officials have expressed they are ready to retire before the primary given the higher voter turnout that comes with presidential election cycles.

Ms. Kuznik worked as a judge of elections in Fayette County before assuming her current position. During that time, she oversaw an inspector who volunteered until she was 93.

In Montgomery County in Eastern Pennsylvania, the election board has found a solution – recruiting high school seniors to work the polls.

“The way that we’ve done this is by going through civics teachers, history teachers, basically it’s something as simple as having a flier in their high school saying they can sign up,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Neil Makhija. “It’s really rewarding because they get a chance to play a role in the democratic process before they can vote.”

It takes about 2,500 poll workers to staff Montgomery County’s 436 precincts.

Low poll worker pay has been a deterrent for volunteers nationally and in Pennsylvania. The state election code caps poll workers pay at $200 a day, regardless of hours. But a bipartisan bill passed in July 2022, known as Act 88, earmarked $45 million for election-related costs and gave counties the option to apply for the grant money to fill in gaps in the election budget.

Many of them, including Allegheny, Butler, Beaver, Washington, Fayette and Montgomery, used it to increase pay for poll workers in the last election cycle, according to state data.

Election judges and inspectors are now paid up to $175 dollars in Allegheny and Washington, and up to $200 in Fayette, Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland.

“It’s not going to pay the full hourly value of this job, I mean no one is going to get rich being a poll worker but it is a wonderful and necessary thing to do,” Ms. Kuznik said.

Montgomery County, which increased pay for judges to $300 a day and $225 for other positions and offers reimbursement money for mileage, said the date of the April primary has become a struggle.

“The general assembly put the primary election date on Passover, we have a very vibrant Jewish community across Montgomery County and I’m already seeing 20-30 young people notifying that they won’t be able to serve in this primary,” Mr. Makhija said.

The impact of the date is big; several precincts in the county were going to be held in Jewish Synagogues but will have to be moved, Mr. Makhija said.

For the county election officials across southwest Pennsylvania, the jury was still out on whether they were concerned about the number of poll workers they would have to staff their precincts.

“We’re reaching out every way we can, we have a website and we also urge people to contact the state,” said Ms. Kuznik. “As we get closer to the election we’re reaching out to community groups, to schools.”

In Somerset County, long-time Election Director Tina Pritts said the county of 47,992 registered voters needs around 20 to 25 poll workers to run their 68 precincts. Ms. Pritts said the county return rate for judges and inspectors is “not always over 100% but usually pretty good.”

Pennsylvania has seen a high turnover of senior election officials across the state since January 2020. Over 70 senior election directors in 40 counties have left their positions, according to an estimate from the Department of State. Some counties have seen multiple directors leave during that time period.

“There’s been significant turnover in election administrators” Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt said in a Dec. 11 Senate State Government Committee hearing following the November 2023 municipal election. “Whenever you have that significant turnover and you lose that kind of experience, you are more likely to encounter mistakes.”

Mr. Schmidt said the loss of experience, regardless of reason, means routine errors are more likely to occur as new election administrators learn the ropes. Election experts worry that any errors or complications, even if rare, will breed doubt and false conspiracy theories.

“After the pandemic subsided, shortages repeated because of high turnover and a reluctance among people to volunteer or take election jobs,” said Ari Mittleman the executive director, of Keep Our Republic, an election education nonprofit. “The workload and responsibilities of election workers are already substantial, and the shortage means that fewer people are available to handle the tasks.”

Mr. Schmidt said the turnover is one of the biggest challenges Pennsylvania is facing, but pointed to measures the department is taking to safeguard against human errors, including hiring a full-time training staff to work with election officials and redesigning election ballots to make voter error less likely.

Ms. Orstrander said a handful of election officials in Washington County left their positions after being subject to threats and harassment following the 2020 presidential election.

“After 2020, no one believed the results,” Ms. Orstrander said. “We’ve had some areas that poll workers left because of harassment and intimidation and we haven’t been able to secure permanent poll workers in some of the precincts.”

The Department of State is working closely with county election officials and using as many resources as they can to provide guidance and support to new county election personnel, according to spokesperson Matt Heckel.

“County election directors also collaborate with one another through their state associations to support one another and to trade best practices and advice,” Mr. Heckel said.