Facing a shortage of poll workers, Legislature votes to double pay

Lawmakers and then Murphy acted quickly as election officials warned of long lines because so few had agreed to work
Credit: (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
File photo: A voter checks his registration with poll workers.

Facing a potentially severe shortage poll workers, the Legislature on Thursday introduced and quickly approved a number of changes for the June 8 election only, including doubling poll worker pay to $400.

The legislation (A-5842/S-3880) would also allow for voting districts to be staffed by two workers instead of the usual four to six. And it permits National Guard members in civilian clothes to work the polls. Gov. Phil Murphy signed the measure into law hours after it was passed Thursday.

A shortage of poll workers could lead to longer lines and waits to vote.

County election officials had been warning for weeks that they were having trouble getting enough poll workers, in many cases because of the low pay for a long day. When Murphy lifted the statewide mask mandate, that caused other workers to drop out, officials said.

“We were OK until the mask restrictions started to lift,” said Nicole DiRado, administrator of the Union County Board of Elections. “Some people called and said, ‘The restrictions were lifted everywhere else, why not for poll workers?”

Masks are still required in schools, where many polling locations are sited, and those working in counties that are requiring all their workers to wear masks would also be covered by that mandate.

The legislation states the shortage of workers due to COVID-19-pandemic concerns has left counties unable to “meet the statutory requirements concerning the number of poll workers necessary in each election district,” thus requiring legislation to waive certain rules.

Fast action

Those rule changes include allowing only one Democrat and one Republican, instead of two or three of each, to staff each voting location, allowing a person to work the polls in a county other than the one where he lives and allowing citizens who are not registered to vote to also staff voting sites. There are also some changes allowed for polling locations.

The bills were introduced Thursday, bypassed committee hearings and voted on by both houses. They were not listed on the Assembly agenda and the Senate version was a late add to that house’s board list. The Democratic and Republican leaders of each house sponsored them.

Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), one of the sponsors, stressed that the changes, including the enlisting of the National Guard to work the polls if necessary, are needed to provide “greater flexibility on primary day” and would be in effect for “this primary only.”

Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) was the only senator to vote against the measure, saying he opposes allowing the military to get involved in elections.

“I don’t think it’s wise,” said Doherty, who is a veteran. “I certainly hope these people are wearing civilian clothes. I certainly hope they don’t drive up in military vehicles to these locations, because that would also have an intimidating effect … I do think we need to protect our military. It’s got an honor tradition of not being involved in politics, elections and deciding the outcome.”

Fingers crossed

Election officials have their fingers crossed that the additional one-time stipend of $200 for a full day or $100 for a half-day, on top of the typical $200 pay for a full day’s work, will convince experienced workers to return on Tuesday, particularly given there will be little time for training any new people who sign up to work the polls.

“I’m really hopeful that as we start calling seasoned poll workers who declined to work for us because of the pay that they will agree to come back because of the stipend,” DiRado said. Noting that the additional pay is only for the primary, she added, “Our poll workers deserve a raise.”

Election Day is a long one. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and workers must arrive early to prepare and stay later to clean and close up, so most end up working 15 hours or more. The pay is typically $200, which works out to about $13 an hour. New Jersey’s minimum wage is currently $12 per hour, but that’s generally for an eight-hour shift, with overtime paid for extra hours worked. The additional $200 stipend would boost that to about $26 an hour.

Eileen Kean, an election commissioner in Monmouth County, said poll workers also must take a class to learn about voting equipment and procedures and “they are not paid for this refresher course.” She said Monmouth County is facing a shortage of poll workers.

Poor pay for years

Before the coronavirus pandemic exploded in New Jersey, legislation had begun moving through the Senate to increase by $75 the daily pay for poll workers, who have not seen an increase in two decades. A bill (S-598) cleared the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee in a unanimous, bipartisan vote on Feb. 10, 2020 but has stalled in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. The estimated cost is $5 million.

READ: Poll workers in line for first pay hike in two decades if bill goes through   

WATCH: NJ elections officials: ‘A tremendous response’ to recruiting of poll workers

The increase to $275 would not keep up with inflation, which as measured by the change in the Consumer Price Index rose by 46% between 2001 and 2020. A daily rate of $291 would be needed to match that inflation rate.

It’s unclear how many election workers would be involved 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.

Beth Thompson, administrator of the Hunterdon County Board of Elections, said the county was having issues recruiting workers, but a social media blast attracted enough candidates. She said she has so far completed four training classes and has three more scheduled “because of all the new folks that we had to hire” before June 8. That’s a record number of pre-election trainings for the county.

Thompson said issues related to COVID-19 and the changing mask mandates may also be keeping some prospective poll workers away.

The COVID-19 factor

“I understand that some counties are really struggling trying to get folks to work and with all the confusion about who wears a mask and where you have to wear a mask, it is really causing issues with questions we just can’t answer,” she said.

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A spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections said last week that she was unaware of a statewide poll worker shortage and it’s possible that only some counties may be having difficulty finding enough people to sign in voters and work the voting machines.

Union County is one of those places.

“Our polling locations will likely be understaffed in most instances,” DiRado said.

The presence of fewer poll workers often means longer lines and waits to vote when one worker needs to cover multiple positions or more than one district.

Registered voters and high school students at least age 16 who have permission from a guardian and their school are eligible to work. The Division of Elections has a poll worker application available on its website, or those who may be interested in working can contact their county elections officials.

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