JEFFERSON CITY — With less than one month remaining before Election Day, local officials said they are having difficulty staffing Missouri’s polling places and fear many positions will go unfilled.
In June, DeForest Soaries, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said the United States was 500,000 workers shy of the 2 million needed to run November’s election.
Poll workers in Missouri are hired and trained at the local level. Although officials in some areas said they already have enough staff for Election Day, others are struggling to find workers.
“At this point we are probably short by close to 1,000 people,” said David Welch, director of St. Louis County’s Board of Election Commissioners. “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 long after the polls close at 7 p.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.”
In past years, officials have had trouble attracting young people to the position. In fact, the average U.S. poll worker is 72, according to the Election Assistance Commission.
There has been no official survey of poll workers in Missouri, but officials have noticed 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 toward 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 choose not to work as election judges.”
Several counties have fought the shortage by hiring high school students to provide judges with support.
“At one time, I thought there would be some conflicts,” Buchanan County Clerk Pat Conroy said. “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 older judges have shown a disinterest in learning new skills needed to administer electronic ballots.
“Many people are afraid of the election equipment and not accustomed to it,” Turner Buie said. “There is a fear factor, which I understand.”
One official thinks technologically savvy high-schoolers 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 Chuck Pryor, a spokesman for the Missouri secretary of state.
Citizens interested in becoming poll workers should contact their local election board or county clerk.