By Aerion Abney
As county officials throughout Pennsylvania work to comply with Gov. Tom Wolf’s voting machine mandate for the 2020 elections, they would be wise to tackle a less-recognized threat to election integrity: poorly trained poll workers.
Poll workers are the guardians of our democracy and to thoroughly protect our election system they must be properly trained. Among their vital tasks, poll workers check-in voters, hand out ballots, and help voters with disabilities.
Most critically, as Pennsylvania transitions to new voting systems that have a voter-verifiable paper ballot, poll workers are the first responders in case of any voting machine problems or failures.
In a commonwealth where nearly every eligible voter casts a ballot on a single day, Pennsylvania’s fleet of Election Day workers can make the difference between voters feeling confident their voices are heard and an experience that sparks distrust in the democratic process.
It’s why county officials must begin now to recruit poll workers and design and implement training to ensure they are prepared well before the first ballot is cast in 2020.
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While the Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security recommends tackling the technological vulnerabilities throughout the election system, we urge officials to confront a critical side to running elections that often goes overlooked.
Taking steps now to recruit and train poll workers is critical to safeguarding our democracy.
First, elections officials must tackle the critical shortage of poll workers throughout our commonwealth. Elections officials nationwide have long complained that they struggle to find enough workers needed to run free and fair elections. The need is most acute here in Pennsylvania. The result: long lines at the polls, particularly in communities of color, who know all too well what it means to be disenfranchised.
In 2018, All Voting is Local – our campaign to protect and expand access to the ballot – worked with county election officials in Allegheny, Philadelphia and Lehigh counties to launch a poll worker recruitment effort.
While efforts to increase the number of poll workers was a positive step, of the recruits selected to staff the polls on Election Day, many told us they felt ill-prepared for the demands they met at the polls.
In addition, our campaign netted 1,300 recruits, yet less than half of them were called by elections officials to staff the polls on Election Day.
This lack of follow through cannot happen again in 2020. We can avoid these problems by working with our partner organizations and election officials to recruit poll workers and ensure they are equipped to meet the needs of every voter.
Second, officials must design and implement thorough training on the critical functions of the new voting machines.
This training should be in-person and mandatory and all poll workers should be paid for completing it. Too often, poll workers leave optional training sessions with a complex booklet or are made to watch training videos that only skim the surface of what they need to know.
This training must include specific attention to ensuring voters with disabilities and voters with language barriers have fair and equal access to the ballot.
It cannot be overstated: Not making polling places and ballots accessible to people with disabilities and denying non-English speakers from having assistance at the polls is against federal law.
Additionally, poll workers are not always aware of the proper use of supplemental poll books, which contain the names of eligible voters who do not make it on the master rolls.
This simple check can reduce the need for provisional ballots, saving time and confusion. The switch to new voting machines provides an opportunity to adopt sound practices so that poll workers understand their responsibilities to these vulnerable voters.
Lastly, officials must ensure poll workers are trained to handle voting machine breakdowns. Poll workers must have enough paper ballots printed and ready in case of emergency.
Technological difficulties should not cause a disruption so severe that it brings voting to a standstill. Past elections have shown that it is better to have extra paper ballots and not need them than to be left scrambling.
As Pennsylvania takes the necessary step to modernize its elections, we must recognize that machines and technology are only one part of safeguarding our elections.
We must also invest in qualified, trained poll workers to ensure that every vote is cast, and every voice is heard.
Aerion Abney is the Pennsylvania state director of All Voting is Local. He writes from Pittsburgh.