Archive for Thursday, July 29, 2004

November poll worker shortage feared

July 29, 2004

De Soto resident Mary Manly says working the polls takes an early bird with some stamina, but give her a puzzle book and she's up for the job.

Manly, 78, has been an election worker in Johnson County for more than a decade. Despite long hours and sometimes grumbling voters, she still really likes doing it.

"It has to take an early person, because you've got to be there at 6 a.m., wide awake and ready to go," she said. "It's no big deal -- it's fun."

However, guessing many other citizens are turned off by long hours and the difficulty of missing a day of work, some area county election offices are coming up a bit short on poll workers this year. Although the shortage isn't drastic, Johnson County says it could use a few more warm bodies to run the upcoming primary elections Tuesday.

With the largest population in the area, Johnson County needs about 1,300 to 1,400 workers to fill spots at 415 precincts, said Johnson County Election Commissioner Connie Schmidt.

Schmidt said the county hoped for at least 50 more people to help with primary elections. That's pretty normal for this time of year, she said, but November's elections could be more of a problem.

Presidential elections draw far more voters, she said, and mobilizing an election staff was a new process each season.

"We always worry because it's a job that you almost have to start all over again, so it's a massive recruitment, really, for every election," she said.

Counties have been recruiting workers with newspaper advertisements, fliers, posters and inserts with mailings to voters.

Most election workers are paid $85 for a day of work and $15 for a required three-hour training session. Supervising judges are paid $100.

Working the polls does make for a long day, Schmidt said.

De Soto resident Roland Ohrenberg can attest to that, too.

"Most elections you have to show up an hour before the polls, which is 6," he said. "And you cannot leave until after 7. That's a 13-hour day."

Ohrenberg, who has been working the polls in De Soto since he retired from his full-time job in 1994, will be the supervising judge at the De Soto Community Center polling site this year.

He said a few high school students sometimes worked at the polls but that most people couldn't get out of work all day on a Tuesday.

"That's why you see primarily retired people there -- gray heads," he said.

Sometimes, especially during primary elections, poll workers bear the brunt of uninformed voters' ire.

Ohrenberg said last year's shift in precinct boundaries caught some people off guard and they weren't all happy about it.

"People got all bent out of shape because they didn't go to the same polling place," he said. "There's a few always that come in all upset -- they haven't got the good sense to look at the registration card that tells them where to vote."

For Ohrenberg, keeping his cool is just part of the job. Overall, Schmidt said working at the polls was enjoyable and educational for most, who learned about all sides of elections by running them.

"I think they find it a very beneficial experience," she said. "Many comments from new people are that they had no idea."

Schmidt said Johnson County was starting a new program this year to encourage businesses to allow employees to work the polls instead of going to their regular jobs. They then apply part of their pay to a charitable cause.

Schmidt said the district attorney's office would be one of the first groups to participate in the program, called Adopt A Polling Place.

Manly, who will also be working at the Community Center on Tuesday, says even if people couldn't work during elections, everyone should at least show up long enough to vote.

"It's so easy to do," she said. "Just drop by. I hope we have a lot of voters. I want everybody to come out and vote -- it's such a privilege."

For information about becoming a Johnson County election worker, call (913) 782-3441.

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