Election officials try to recruit younger poll workers

ByDeborah Barfield Berry, Gannett News Service
September 29, 2008, 6:46 PM

WASHINGTON -- Britany Rickett had barely approached the recruiting table when Alison Prevost rushed into her pitch urging the Howard University student to sign up as a poll worker for November's election.

"It's one of the best ways to see how our elections really go on," Prevost told the potential recruit before going straight to the point. "We need young people."

From American University in Washington, D.C., to tribal colleges in South Dakota, schools are teaming with local election officials to recruit an army of younger poll workers for Election Day to complement and one day replace older workers.

In Washoe County, election officials also are targeting high school students.

"We really want young people to be involved," said Dan Burk, the Washoe County registrar of voters, whose office also recruits college students. "They're going to inherit this process."

With record turnouts expected, federal election officials say they need at least 2 million poll workers. They hope many will be college students, who experts say tend to be more comfortable with electronic voting machines and computerized registration databases.

Jennifer Collins-Foley, president of The Pollworker Institute said election officials should constantly "shore up" their work forces.

"If you are going to look for a new pool of people, why not look for people who have energy and enthusiasm ... and then hopefully become lifelong voters," Collins-Foley said.

Election officials have long relied on a reliable corps of senior citizens to work the polls. But many of those workers — the average age is about 75 — are uncomfortable with new voting equipment and regulations required under the federal elections reform law passed in 2002.

So the federal Election Assistance Commission that was created under the new law has given colleges and nonpartisan groups $1.6 million since 2004 to help recruit college students as poll workers.

"It kind of was born out of necessity," said Rosemary Rodiguez, commission chairwoman. "It's great to know there's someone to hand the baton to."

Hoping to expand its pool of younger poll workers, Washoe County election officials set up a recruitment program this year targeting high school students. Most students will be stationed at poll entrances to check voter registration information on the state's computerized database.

The students, who must have permission from their parents and school counselors, can earn $100 to $110 a day.

To make it more enticing, the high school that gets the most students to participate will get $500 for its student government fund.

"It's not always easy," said Burk. "Young people tend to have more things on their minds."

The office has set aside 40 slots for younger poll workers, who will help mostly with electronic machines and devices, Burk said.

"We like the quick little savvy fingers on the laptop," said Liz Ortiz, who heads the program and is the community outreach coordinator for the Washoe County Manager's office. "We're trying to get the kids engaged at an earlier level."

On the day of Washington, D.C.'s recent primary election, first-time poll worker Cyndee Pelt had set up voting machines in the basement of Metropolitan Baptist Church by 6 a.m. She was excited her civic involvement.

"I think it's a great opportunity whether you are Republican or Democrat or Green Party or independent," said Pelt, 27, of Menomonee Falls, Wis. "You're just doing your civic duty ... just being part of democracy as it happens."

With a $32,000 federal grant, the Northern Plains Tribal Voter Education Project aims to recruit 150 poll workers from tribal colleges in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

"A lot of times, Native Americans have felt really left out in general, particularly with the electoral process," said Jean Katus, program manger for the project.

At American University, officials recruited 150 students from campus and area schools. "Young people are looking for an opportunity to be engaged," said Prevost, project manager for the university's Center for Democracy and Election Management.

Last week, Prevost took her recruiting drive to Howard University where Sophia John of Miami listened intently. John knew she would cast an absentee ballot but had not thought about working at the polls.

"I want to be out there, become involved. ... It's a historic event," said the 19- year-old sophomore before adding. "It's one day. I can give my time to do that."