As discussed last week, the graying of America is seen most potently behind the polls. The decreasing numbers of poll workers across the nation has been threatening the centerpiece of our democracy. The first article focused on how young people can and should fill that void. This week, we take a look into a less conventional method of filling the need: Making poll working mandatory.
Currently, there are only two counties in the entire country that uses a drafting system for poll workers. Nebraska law allows for a draft and both Douglas and Sarpy County have taken part. At least one other state has considered the idea of a poll worker draft. In 2007, Ohio’s Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, announced the idea, but was eventually met with considerable criticism from the legislature. The word “draft” itself has a grim, scary, and negative connection in our country. However, there are many positives that could come from instituting a poll-worker draft in a jurisdiction in need. Lets call it election duty (like jury duty) to make it more palatable.
HOW COULD A DRAFT HELP?
The problem of long hours at the polls plagues every jurisdiction. It is a little discussed fact that anyone who offers to become a poll worker must work from about an hour before the poll opens to after the poll closes in the evening. Not many people would sign up for these long hours, even when payment is offered (which often comes out to very near minimum wage). However, a election duty system would help not only to alleviate the general need, but with a high participation rate, everyone who participates would have an easier job. In one district where it might take four people 14 hours of work each, 8 citizens could be pulled to work 7 hours and even get regular breaks. From another perspective, this would also make election duty less demanding. A less daunting task for those who choose to participate would help the image of election duty.
Jury duty is another form of service our government has been running in order to fill a need. Most who think about it dread it and upon first receiving a summons are likely to try to come up with for a good excuse not to be chosen. However, no one can argue with jury duty’s ability to achieve the goal of filling the seats of the jury. People may moan about it when it is their turn, but it is accepted as being a small sacrifice to live in a society with justice and legal process. With time, election duty could become similarly accepted by the public.
Working as a poll worker is a time specific and limited public servitude. Most states have a single day (or half-day) of training and then election day. In contrast, jury duty can last an indeterminate amount of time, possibly several months. While many potential jurors have understandable economic hardship claims, it would be difficult to make a similar case of economic hardship for one day of working the polls.
Also, the concerns about hardship and qualifications of those called for polling duty could be met by a process similar to voir dire to screen potential workers. Those people who would likely take issue with leaving a day of work (or are not permitted to) may have a valid argument for not serving. However, if election duty became a legal requirement, employers who grant leave for jury duty would likely do the same for election duty, recognizing it’s need in society and their employees’ civic responsibility
WHY MIGHT A DRAFT NOT HELP?
However, there are some clear downsides to having an election draft. A strong argument is that drafting registered voters would give people a reason to not register to vote. Ohio’s original plan called for choosing workers from those registered in the county. Voter registration is a big problem for all jurisdictions, and this may serve as yet another deterrent for those who have yet to register. However, it could be argued that this may not deter those who actually value their vote. Registering to vote often serves to sign you up for other potential inconveniences such as previously noted jury duty and the added chance of being called for election duty would probably have little to no effect on most new registrants.
A less tangible, but perhaps more compelling argument can be made for holding out on for a better solution than a draft-style system for poll workers. The change could serve to alter the fabric of one of the roots in our democracy. People forced to serve as poll workers may come to view the whole election process with distaste. Most people these days complain vigorously about jury service and dread spending their day in court. The court room should be something that stands for justice, but jury duty has helped make America despise the sight of it. To mandate people to work at the polls could degrade an integral part of liberty.
Perhaps the greatest concern is that a draft would put our electoral process in the hands of the unqualified and uninterested. The greatest concern for many draftees would not be protecting democracy, but simply avoiding a criminal charge for failing to appear. Significant drama and fear of lost liberty surrounds elections today with new voting systems, fraud, identification, and other issues. Adding to that mix a person who is minimally trained and may have little or no desire to be there is legitimate cause for concern.
The new arrangements of our election system in America that would come with election duty are also of concern for lawmakers, whose choice it ultimately is to institute such a program. The idea has not been universally popular and there is considerable political risk in mandating an election draft. However, as long as there remains a need for poll workers, there will be healthy debate about what method is best
Alex Grout is a student at William & Mary Law School and an editor at State of Elections.