Credit: Dan Levy/Billy Penn

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How many people want to get up at the crack of dawn on Election Day and work a 14-hour shift for a few cents less than minimum wage?

Not enough to fill all the available seats.

A new civil rights campaign is trying to change that. All Voting Is Local launched in mid-September to combat the nationwide shortage of poll workers through recruitment efforts in five states. Despite its late start, less than eight weeks before the election, the initiative has already recruited more than 3,000 poll workers in Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

So far, more than a third of those recruits — 1,297 of them, to be exact — are in Pennsylvania, with 813 new registrants in Philadelphia County alone.

A 2016 survey from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that two-thirds of jurisdictions across the country struggled to find ready-and-able poll workers in time for Election Day. That’s up from half of all jurisdictions in 2008 and 2012.

“There are some inherent barriers,” said Aerion Abney, the Pa. director for All Voting is Local. “Election Day is on a Tuesday and Pennsylvania doesn’t have early voting. Some people are working, students have classes, they have to work with professors or bosses to get off to serve as a poll worker.”

Another big barrier: “Most people just don’t realize you can get paid for this.”

Yep. After a recent pay bump of around 20 percent, poll workers in Philly can pull in $120 for the day — add $30 more if you attend a one-hour training session.

No, it’s not enough to retire on, and the hours are long. But in the poorest big city in the country, it was incentive enough to get hundreds to volunteer to help facilitate local democracy on Nov 6.

Paucity at the polls

Philadelphia has 1,692 voting divisions, each with its own five-person election board. That means it takes roughly 8,460 election workers to staff the city’s voting apparatus at full capacity. We don’t have close to that many.

“In the majority of divisions, they’re doing a five-person job with two or three people,” City Commissioner Lisa Deeley told Billy Penn.

Election board vacancy is a glaring problem across the city. Some of the board seats are elected, and even those are only half filled, according to City Commissioners’ data. More than a quarter of polling places don’t even have a Judge of Election at all, because this is Philly and voter participation has been dismally low. Remember Phillip García, the Manayunk resident who went viral last year after being elected to the board with a single write-in vote?

State election code mandates you can only work the polls for the division in which you live. But there’s an exception that allows the City Commissioners office to fill persistently vacant seats with poll worker volunteers within five days of any election.

That’s where All Voting Is Local comes in.

With their mass media campaign, Abney and his colleagues have beefed up the volunteer poll worker lists in their five target states. So when Philly’s election commissioners start making calls for workers this week, they’ll have more than 800 extra possible fill-ins at the ready.

“We know being a poll worker is not a sexy position. You don’t get recognition or your name in the paper. But we know people want to be more civically engaged.” Abney said.

“This is an awareness campaign for those people — for the casual voter who sees their poll workers on Election Day, but doesn’t make the connection that it’s something they can also do.”

The cash goes a long way

Commissioner Deeley adds that there’s another perk: the chance to make new friends in your neighborhood.

“Election Day is a great day to meet your community,” Deeley said. “There’s a camaraderie that builds among the same people who work the polls every six months. It’s opportunity to get to know your neighbors and to be an active part of your democracy.”

But for most, cash is the biggest incentive.

According to Deeley, election board workers hadn’t gotten a raise since 1999. Most were making about $100 for what amounts to a 14-hour day. Broken down as pay for a 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. stint, that’s slightly less than the state’s hourly minimum wage. The City Commissioners had spent years unsuccessfully lobbying City Council and the mayor for modest pay increases, she said.

This year, they finally secured about $20 more for each of the city’s foot soldiers of democracy — a $350,000 increase to the annual budget. The new daily pay scale for election board workers breaks down like this:

  • Judges of Election, $120
  • Majority Inspectors, Minority Inspectors, Clerks, and Machine Inspectors: $115
  • Bilingual Interpreters: $95

The extra bump makes it an easier sell for All Voting Is Local.

“The numbers kind of speak for themselves,” Abney said, of the 1,300 people who signed up statewide since September. “I think that speaks volumes. People are spreading the word. They are looking for opportunities.”

Philly election officials won’t known until after Nov. 6 whether the nascent campaign’s recruitment efforts helped. But they’ll take whatever help they can get.

Are you registered to vote and want to sign up to be an on-call poll worker? Give Deeley’s office a ring at 215-686-3460.

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...