Poll-Worker Drought Plagues Central Texas

Election officials in Central Texas are struggling to find workers to staff the polls with election day only a week away.
by | May 22, 2012
 

By Benjamin Wermund, Austin American-Statesman, Texas

This month's back-to-back elections have spawned more than just voter fatigue. Election officials in Central Texas are struggling to find workers to staff the polls with election day only a week away.

A lengthy legal battle over redistricting pushed the primaries — normally held in March — back to May 29, just a few weeks after the May 12 local elections and a day after Memorial Day.

And with the job paying just $8 an hour, officials say they're struggling to lure new workers.

"All of that has combined to create the perfect storm of election worker shortage," said Bill Fairbrother, chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party.

His group, along with the Williamson County Democratic Party, is responsible for putting workers at more than 80 polling locations — each of which requires three to six workers from each party — across the county on election day. But many of the parties' regular poll workers scheduled vacations or said they don't want to work two elections in one month.

"I just can't imagine why some people won't cancel their cruises," Williamson County Democratic Party Chair Karen Carter joked. "It's just a disaster."

In Williamson County, both parties are especially struggling to find Spanish-speaking workers.

Carter, whose party was short more than 30 Spanish speakers late last week, said about half of the polling places still lack a bilingual worker.

Travis, Bastrop and Hays counties are experiencing varying levels of poll worker drought.

Travis County has about 180 polling places, each requiring at least five workers, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said.

She said the county needed more than 100 workers early last week, and that gap has still not closed completely.

"We need all of it — Spanish speaking, people willing to travel, people to help us find more people. We need everything," DeBeauvoir said.

"It's one of those things where failure is not an option — we have to hold the election, and we have to have people there."

DeBeauvoir said if the parties can't scrounge up enough workers, county employees will have to step in and "bail it out."

"That's an expense to Travis County that's not fair. It will cost us more than $8 an hour to put them in place," she said.

Hays County, which needs about 200 poll workers, was short 10 to 15 Thursday, Elections Administrator Joyce Cowan said, and too few workers initially delayed the office from counting mail ballots.

In Bastrop County, there are 21 polling places that each require three or four workers.

"We're all trying to scramble to find workers," said Bridgette Escobedo, an election specialist in the county. "Plus, a lot of people are tired — they've worked already at the city and school elections."

Once the counties find the workers necessary to staff the polls, there is always the risk of workers dropping out, officials say.

"They suddenly realize it's a graduation; a lot of people forget it's the day after Memorial Day," Fairbrother said.

Poll workers need to be registered voters and declare a party for the primary. Duties include setting up and taking down the polling place, making sure voters are registered and answering any questions voters may have.

"Nine times out of 10, it's really, really easy," said Jose Orta, who recruits poll workers for the Williamson County Democratic Party.

DeBeauvoir said it's getting a little late in the game for recruiting.

"I'm nervous now," she said of the shortage.

©2012 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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