New Jersey’s poll workers, those folks who sign in voters and usher them into voting machines on Election Day, would get their first pay increase in nearly two decades under a bill that cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday.
The $75 boost in pay would take the tens of thousands of poll workers statewide to $275 per day for what is a very long day — at least 15 hours, starting at about 5:15 a.m. County election administrators say it has become increasingly difficult to recruit enough people to work a long day twice a year for the same $200 they’ve been earning since 2001. The result: Many polling places aren’t staffed as required by law. And with a presidential election this year expected to draw a high turnout, sites will need to be well-staffed.
The bill enacting the pay increase (S-598) unanimously cleared the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee even though it is estimated that it will cost the state $5 million to implement.
Sen. James Beach (D-Camden), bill sponsor and committee chair, said the increase is crucial to ensure that the state’s elections, which are the backbone of democracy, run smoothly.
“I realize the training that is required and the long hours you put in,” Beach said addressing one of more than a dozen poll workers from across the state who testified in favor of the pay raise. “Recruiting high-quality people to do your job is so important to the whole process of voting.”
Low pay for a long day
Poll workers work all of Election Day, with only an hour break for lunch. While polls will open at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. for the June primary and November general election, workers need to arrive early to set up, keep the machines open until everyone who is inside a polling place at 8 p.m. votes, then shut down the machines and bring the results to the county office, where they are tallied. Some polling places may be very busy, and changes in the law over the past two years, particularly ones that expanded voting by mail, have led to greater confusion and, at times, irate voters.
“Our poll workers are on the front line,” said Shona Mack Pollack, superintendent of elections for Passaic County and a vice president of the New Jersey Association of Election Officials. “You all have been very progressive in the election reform in the state and we applaud you. We have effectuated great change in the state and a lot of the voters have not become aware of everything until they get to the polls on Election Day and this is what our poll workers are dealing [with]. Sometimes they are dealing with confused, frustrated and sometimes very irate voters… they don’t understand why they are marked vote-by-mail and they can’t vote in the machine that day.”
Changes in other place, such as Union County’s recent adoption of new machines with a voter-verified paper trail, have necessitated additional training for workers and brought new challenges for the public.
“Working with the public is always interesting,” said Carol Lombardo, a 20-year poll worker. “The poll workers do put in a lot of hours and they give every ounce of blood, sweat and tears that they can because they don’t get many breaks.”
Working for less than minimum wage
The current $200 per day salary works out to about $13.33 per hour, assuming the hour’s lunch is paid, but considering most workers earning an hourly wage would be eligible for overtime after an eight-hour shift, it really breaks down to something more akin to $10.81, which is less than the state’s current minimum wage of $11 per hour.
The increase to $275 does not even keep up with inflation, which as measured by the change in the Consumer Price Index rose by 43% between 2001 and 2019. A daily salary of $286 would be needed to match that inflation rate.
As originally introduced, the bill would have paid poll workers $300 per day, but it was amended to lower that amount to $275. The reduction, according to sources, is to avoid an income-reporting requirement triggered when an individual receives $600 in compensation in a year, which poll workers on duty for the primary and general elections would meet. That would force officials to spend extra hours processing paperwork for all the poll workers.
It’s unclear how many election workers may be affected, but the number easily exceeds 20,000, given the state has more than 6,300 voting districts, each of which is supposed to be staffed with four or five workers representing the two major parties. Each district is also supposed to have bilingual workers.
“That rarely happens,” said Nicole DiRado, elections administrator in Union County, adding that last year many workers cancelled close to Election Day, and so some districts had only one or two poll workers. “What we are seeing is a decrease in the number of poll workers,” she added.
She said that Union County should have about 2,255 workers at polling places on Election Day to satisfy state requirements. Last November, about 1,800 worked in the county during the general election.
Dealing with shortage of poll workers
A shortage of poll workers this year could prove especially problematic, given the high-profile election is expected to draw many more voters to the polls. Last year, with state Assembly seats topping the ballot, more than 1.6 million New Jerseyans voted. But that number is likely to more than double this year; in the last presidential election in 2016, close to 4 million cast ballots in the state.
“Going into a presidential election, it’s a scary thing,” said DiRado, who traveled to Trenton Monday with more than a dozen poll workers to lobby for the bill.
William Ditto, 72, a Monmouth County poll worker for 34 years, said a pay increase may help retain experienced poll workers — all workers have to complete training every two years.
“It is definitely necessary to raise the remuneration for these workers,” he said, adding that even the longest shifts typically don’t run longer than 12 hours. “There’s no question about it … I hear time and time again they leave because it’s not worth it.”
The state currently pays most of the cost of election worker salaries, reimbursing counties $125 of the $200 daily salary per worker. The legislation includes $5 million to cover the additional $75 pay, as the state-mandate-state-pay clause in the New Jersey Constitution seems to require that. But the bill, which cleared the same committee near the end of the last legislative session, does not have a fiscal note so it is not certain whether than amount will be enough.
Why take the job?
Given the long hours and low pay, why does anyone want to be a poll worker? Some people use a vacation or personal day off from their regular job to work the polls for extra money. Others are retired and do it to earn some cash and get to see neighbors who come in and out during the day. Still others see it as a calling, a way to do their duty as citizens.
“We’ve got to get citizens to realize that this is an important responsibility of the public,” Ditto said. “This is citizenship in this country.”
DiRado said the state and counties are aggressively recruiting poll workers.
Workers don’t have to meet many criteria: be a registered voter of good moral character able to perform the duties of poll worker and be a resident of New Jersey for at least 30 days and of the county where one wants to work for at least 30 days before the election. Neither current candidates nor anyone convicted of certain criminal offenses can work. While workers are supposed to be declared Democrats or Republicans, counties may hire unaffiliated voters if they cannot find enough party members to work the polls.
Anyone interested can find an application on the state Division of Elections website.