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These workers, of average age 72, have to handle long lines and new technology.
When things go awry at the voting booth, as they have several times in this hectic primary season, much of the blame often falls on ill-trained poll workers who are paid a pittance.
And there have been some head-scratching moments: While folks in Washington were waiting hours to vote under record turnout Feb. 12, poll workers hid electronic voting machines because they didn't like the touch screen devices. On Super Tuesday in Chicago, poll workers passed out pens meant for e-voting machines. When those instruments made no mark on paper ballots, election workers said they were full of invisible ink - an explanation that was upheld by on-site precinct judges.
While some of these snafus defy logic, many can be pinned on poor training, experts say.
"We're running the most important part of our democracy on the backs of untrained, poorly paid volunteers," said Lloyd Leonard, who has helped research poll worker issues for the League of Women Voters. "It's not their fault. Funding is not a priority. They aren't paid much. They try real hard. We should all volunteer and help them out."
There are an estimated 2-million poll workers, the largest one-day work force in the country, according to research published in September by electionline.org, a project of the Pew Center on the States.
Many have only a few hours of training and earn an average of $100 for working up to 16 hours on election day - 40 cents more an hour than the federal minimum wage, the survey said.
There are no national standards for training poll workers, and compensation is determined by states and local election boards, ranging from a low of zero in Vermont to a high of $325 in some New York jurisdictions.
"Low pay, absenteeism, and morale continue to be challenges," the study said.
Added disincentives include serving a public whose members can turn cranky and impatient when kept waiting - and right now it's all about waiting - while laboring under a preconception that the work force is a bunch of gray-haired technophobes.
Electronic voting machines have worsened the burden on poll workers, whose average age is 72. Touted as an antidote to the election meltdown of 2000, many states welcomed the new technology and spent millions buying its products. Then problems arose with elderly poll workers who had difficulty operating the ATM-like units. Problems also occurred with the machines themselves, which malfunctioned, switched votes and mysteriously shut down in cases reported across the country.
Several states this year, including delegate-rich California, changed their primaries to paper contests. Ohio's Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, is hurriedly switching to paper ballots for the March 4 state primary.
Those last-minute switches, elections monitors said, create more confusion for poll workers.
Additionally, voters overwhelmed state primaries and caucuses, creating long lines and confusion in places such as Honolulu, where nearly 40,000 Democrats showed up Tuesday.
In 2004, the number of Democratic caucus voters was 4,000.
[Last modified February 24, 2008, 01:02:43]