Politics & Government

June 11, 2014

Richland County seeks young poll workers to bolster staff

Richland County is looking for more poll workers — particularly those who are younger and computer savvy — to staff the next general election and handle the influx of voters expected to cast ballots in November.

Richland County is looking for more poll workers — particularly those who are younger and computer savvy — to staff the next general election and handle the influx of voters expected to cast ballots in November.

Several hundred poll workers didn’t show up to help run the Republican and Democratic primaries Tuesday, which county officials say is significant since Richland had 25 more precincts to staff and operate.

At the same time, some of those who did work the polls weren’t experienced enough with voting machines and laptop computers to avoid delays at a handful of precincts, interim elections director Samuel Selph said.

Selph said his office is actively seeking others to help out, particularly those who’ve grown up with computers and high-tech equipment.

“There’s no question, we need young people to step up,’’ the 66-year-old Selph said. “It puts a few dollars in their pocket and it builds our work force with good trained people who know how to operate these machines. They are much more computer savvy and literate than we are.’’

A typical poll worker in Richland County earns about $120 for staffing a precinct, while poll managers make about $60 more, Selph said. Technicians available to help with computer glitches make about $350, he said.

County officials generally deemed Tuesday’s primary as successful and relatively error free, aside from some hot spots. But they acknowledged the public is watching closely because of the disastrous 2012 election, in which people waited up to eight hours in line to vote. Much of the problem was blamed on deploying too few working voting machines to precincts.

The equipment worked this week, for the most part, and the county had more than enough machines. But Selph noted the primary had only a 15 percent turnout and improvements are needed before heavier voting is expected in November, which includes a governor’s race and two senatorial races.

Selph said he hopes to identify up to 300 more poll workers to complement the pool of 1,200 now listed as available to work. In addition to more workers, the county plans to intensify training for poll workers so there won’t be unnecessary delays, Selph said Wednesday.

He hopes to have several days of training before the general election. Prior to Tuesday’s primary, poll workers received several hours of training at sessions held by the county and were encouraged to view an online video on the use of laptops.

This year, precincts in Richland County were equipped with more laptops that contained the names of registered voters, which can decrease the time it takes to check a person in to vote. But that’s only if poll workers know how to use the laptops, officials said. In the past, many county precincts have used paper registration lists to see if people were eligible to vote.

"Some people aren’t computer literate,’’ veteran A.C. Moore Elementary School poll worker Nancy Brock said, referring to election workers who had difficulties with laptops. "I think the laptops are wonderful. With paper, I’d have to go through a three-ring binder, and by 4 in the afternoon, my eyes were starting to cross.’’

Frank Sarnowski, who runs the poll at Martin Luther King Park in Five Points, said he welcomes younger workers to help with the voting process, as Selph suggests. But he also said it doesn’t take exceptional computer skills to work an election.

“I think our youngest poll worker is in their late 50s, and we all did really well,’’ Sarnowski said, noting that Tuesday’s voting went off without incident at the King Park precinct. “It’s not rocket science. It’s click and point. It’s not extremely difficult.’’

While Tuesday’s primary election generally was considered a success after a disastrous general election in 2012, 25 or so precincts did have problems.

Some problems involved printing what is known as “zero tape.’’ This is a printed record showing that voting machines are clear of previous recorded votes before balloting begins on Election Day.

In several cases, Selph said precincts reported problems with zero tapes. In one case, that caused an inexperienced poll manager to delay allowing people to vote until the printout could be made, he said. But Selph said it wasn’t necessary to wait on the printout since the record that the machine was clear had already been stored in the computer equipment. Sarnowski said poll workers sometimes load the paper backward, which prevents a printout.

Meanwhile, Selph said Wednesday that his office plans to send out letters to poll workers on the county’s list that explains their importance in the election process. The idea is to minimize no-shows in November. In addition to about 200 poll workers who did not show, the county also learned that about 16 poll managers would not be working, he said. The county has 149 precincts.

“We are putting together a letter to all the poll clerks, (technicians), and poll workers to let them know they are valuable assets, and (explaining) their commitment to work and asking they live up to that,’’ Selph said. "Not only is everyone in this office depending on you, but the people of the county are depending on you.’’

Selph said he remains perplexed at why the county had so many workers not available to staff the polls, but believes a letter to them before the primaries could have helped limit the problem experienced during Tuesday’s voting. He characterized the number of no-shows as unusual and speculated that summer vacations may have gotten in the way of some people working.

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