Scramble to find, train poll workers goes down to wire
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
LARGO -- Before the $3,100 AVC Edge can do its thing with the fancy computer screen and the snazzy printer in back and the internal wizardry that counts votes, you need to stand it up.
That's where the human beings come in.
"Put this little clip into this little doodad right here," Virginia Stewart said last week, telling a group of poll workers from Precinct 127 in St. Petersburg how to assemble the crossing silver legs that support the touch-screen voting machine.
Stewart is the Pinellas elections official in charge of training 3,200 poll workers by the Sept. 10 primary, and her low-tech tutorial helps illustrate a point: Despite the millions of dollars that Florida counties have spent on new voting machinery in recent months, the performance of low-paid poll workers will largely determine whether Florida can improve its reputation after the zany 2000 election.
In the 15 Florida counties with new touch-screen systems, poll workers will set up the machines, make sure they work, demonstrate to voters how to use them, jump in when voters look confused, handle the data cartridges containing precious results, even wipe the screens when they become too smudged by fingerprints.
"The equipment doesn't bother me; it's the reaction of the people that will be important," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning.
In Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and other counties from North Florida to Miami-Dade, thousands of poll workers, new and old, are being trained this month in the intricacies of touch-screen machines.
But elections supervisors report that hundreds more workers need to be recruited if the Sept. 10 primary is to be conducted properly.
In Pinellas, officials need 400 poll workers as soon as possible. Most would be assigned as "machine managers" who would handle the new machines and patrol the precinct floor to help confused voters.
In Hillsborough, the position is called "touch-screen technician," but the job is the same.
"We're probably several hundred short in that area," said Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio. "It's always a challenge to recruit election workers."
Citrus and Hernando counties use optical scan ballots, not the new touch screens.
In Miami-Dade County, hundreds of poll workers may need to be recruited this month as Supervisor David Leahy discovers how many of the 6,000 volunteers on his roster are dropping out this year.
The reasons for the increased demand are threefold.
One, the recent redistricting increased the number of precincts, which means more poll workers.
Two, additional workers are needed in every precinct to operate and demonstrate touch screens, which are far more complex for the staff than the old punch card machines.
And three, some poll workers have walked away after years of serving in elections, saying they can't take on the extra training and responsibility required for touch screens.
Elections supervisors can sympathize. Although the new machines will streamline and simplify elections for voters, they have added significantly to the office workload in ways the supervisors never anticipated.
Instead of a handful of machines that counted punch cards, supervisors now must reprogram, check and recalibrate thousands of individual touch screens before each election.
The training for poll workers has increased as well.
In Hillsborough, the lead poll workers in each precinct must receive eight hours of training compared with 41/2 hours in past years. In Pinellas, the initial training regimen for all workers is now three hours instead of two.
In addition to learning about touch screens, they must be schooled as well on several new provisions enacted last year by the Florida Legislature in the most sweeping election reform in state history.
One change is the new "provisional ballot," which is given to voters whose eligibility cannot be determined at the precinct. Another requirement is that poll workers now must be trained in "conflict management" and sensitivity to disabled people. The additions were made after many voters in the 2000 election complained of rude, officious poll workers who turned them away or dismissed their complaints.
Pasco is one of 63 Florida counties using a 27-minute video developed by a Sarasota speaker, author and trainer who specializes in people skills.
"There's no room in my polling places for snappy, unkind people," said Browning, the Pasco supervisor.
Typically, the workload would be heavy in a redistricting year. But the added task of buying and installing new voting systems, as the Legislature ordered, has many supervisors scrambling as the primary approaches.
For them, 2002 has been a year of seven-day weeks and missed vacations.
"I leave here anymore just whipped," said Browning. "It was so much simpler before 2000."
Leahy of Miami said he has seven or eight days off since Jan. 1.
"In my 28 years in elections, it's definitely the most difficult election I've ever faced," he said. "I don't know anybody in their right mind who would have done it this way. You don't bring in a new system in March in the same year you run a major election in September."
Leahy said the cost of elections has "gone up leaps and bounds," and that his system -- while a boon for voters -- is "an administrative nightmare."
Said Deborah Clark, the Pinellas elections supervisor: "The whole climate has changed. It is very time-consuming compared to the old system."
Back at Clark's elections training center in mid Pinellas County, a room of 40 veteran poll workers, most of them elderly, dug in one morning last week for a tedious class that will occupy the next three hours.
Shirley Barbel, one of five trainers, urged them to study their workbooks at home because the new material is so complex. Eighty percent of what they learned that day will be forgotten in the next three weeks, she tells them.
"We've got a lot of material here," Barbel begins, "and most of it's new."
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