Paid day off to work the polls?

Posted at 8:27 AM, Mar 07, 2016
CINCINNATI -- Hamilton County still needs hundreds of volunteers to work the Ohio primary so voters don’t face long lines and crowded polls March 15. 
Poll workers have become so scarce, in fact, the county is ramping up efforts to pull in high school students and asking local businesses to give their employees a paid day off to work the polls. 
Board of Elections leaders say they’re about 325 poll workers short, as of March 1, of what they need to keep the polls fully staffed next Tuesday. The county hires roughly 2,700 poll workers for every election. 
If the county doesn’t fill every job, you might face longer lines at the polling booths, said Sherry Poland, the county’s election director. 
“We like to be able to not only fill every position, but we like to have a pool (of people) in the event a poll worker doesn’t show up,” Poland said. 
Poland predicts a 45 percent turnout on March 15. 
County leaders are also testing unconventional methods to encourage people to work the polls. 
Last month, Hamilton County commissioners passed a rule that allows some county employees to take a paid day off in exchange for working the polls. 
County Administrator Christian Sigman said he’s not sure how many employees plan to work the polls – he won’t be able to, for example – but expects the program will make a dent in some of the vacant positions. 
“I hope it helps them to get fully staffed,” Sigman said. 
Poland also hopes other big businesses in town might join in on the program, called Partners in Democracy, and allow their employees to take a paid day off to work at the polls. Poland said one Cincinnati-based company, AdvancePierre Foods, has promised to give the day off for workers in exchange for their time at the voting booths. 
“We would love to have Kroger or Western & Southern – all of the large companies – participate,” Poland said. “Many companies give the day off for other community service opportunities. We’d love to see them give off for a day of democracy.” 
The county is also ramping efforts to get more Hamilton County high school students to work the polls.
Poland said roughly 125 high school students staffed the November 2015 election. She hopes to start partnering with more area high schools to funnel in large numbers of high school students. 
Hiring younger voters to work the polls might also help alleviate problems workers had last year with new technology at the polling booths. Workers are now expected to use electronic polling books, called e-books, to check voters in before they can vote. Several voters and poll workers reported issues last fall with the new technology, forcing a court-order issue for the polls in Hamilton County to stay open later during the last election
“With the introduction of e-books, we realized how valuable it is to have this younger generation involved in the election process,” Poland said. “We’re really trying to reach out to develop a relationship (with high schools).” 
Poland hopes 17- or 18-year-old students might be eligible for extra credit in classes if they work the polls on Election Day, for example. The program is called Youth at the Booth. 
Wyoming High School sent about 25 students to work the polls last fall. Registering to vote and learning how to work the polls has become a key part of a political participation project students are required to complete in their advance placement government classes. 
“We’ve packaged it as getting the kids registered to vote,” Travis Glendenning, a Wyoming teacher, said. “It’s such an invaluable learning opportunity. We stress so much the participatory element of democracy and civic engagement.” 
Students must later write a reflection paper as part of the project, Glendenning said. 
David Zhang, an 18-year-old Wyoming senior, said he would have never thought to volunteer at the polls if it weren’t for the high school government course. In fact, he might not have even registered to vote.
Zhang worked the polls in November and he’ll do it again in the March primary. He said he’s more likely now to sign up for a poll worker job on Election Day for years to come. 
“Exposure to this program will definitely help people vote,” Zhang said. “If you know how the process works, if you believe in the process, if you have respect for the process and if you participate in Youth at the Booth, you’re more likely to vote.”