Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

poll workers

The people responded to the call for poll workers

In Harris County, bigtime.

Muhammed Nasrullah was ready to call it quits. After working as an election judge in every Harris County contest since 2004, the COVID-19 pandemic discouraged the 67-year-old retired mechanical engineer from signing up again.

He is in a high-risk age group, and he knew friends who had contracted the virus. Then he began to read news stories about a nationwide shortage of poll workers during the pandemic. And he was worried that delays in the U.S. Postal Service have undermined the public’s trust in mail ballots.

In such a consequential election Nov. 3, with record turnout expected in Harris County, Nasrullah decided he would serve again.

“I convinced myself that the election is so important that I’m willing to take the risk,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing my civic duty, and it’s a good feeling.”

He is one of 11,000 poll workers Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins hopes to recruit this year, twice as many as in 2016. Hollins’ ambitious $27.2 million election plan includes nearly tripling the number of early voting sites and an 8 percent increase in poll locations on Election Day. He needs an army of poll workers to staff them.

The clerk’s office in August launched an aggressive social media campaign to recruit workers, and Hollins recorded a commercial.

By this week, 29,000 applications had arrived.

Rachelle Obakozuwa, polling locations and recruitment manager for the clerk’s office, attributed part of the increased interest to many residents believing the November presidential election is especially important.

“And for another, people really need work because of COVID and a lot of layoffs,” Obakozuwa said. “We’re seeing both equally.”

Pay was also a factor – poll workers are receiving $17 per hour for their work, nearly double the $9 per hour they got in 2016. Decent pay for meaningful work, who knew that would be attractive to so many? They – and we – can thank Diane Trautman for upping their pay.

Fuentes is one of more than 100 student clerks Harris County recruited from Houston-area schools. As they often are more tech-savvy than older workers, Obakozuwa said one of the students’ tasks will be to update the clerk’s wait time app for polling places.

That task will be crucial to ensuring a smooth experience for residents, as the clerk’s office estimates each voter will spend far longer in the booth this year because of the elimination of straight-ticket voting. The hours-long lines to vote at some locations in the March primary election were partly blamed on a failure of poll workers to update the app, leading voters to visit sites that already were crowded.

Under the Texas Election Code, counties do not hire most poll workers directly. Rather, county clerks recruit and train poll workers, who are selected by the Democratic and Republican election judges at each polling site.

The loss of straight ticket voting may turn out not to be a concern, but until the Fifth Circuit speaks, it’s too soon to say. Be that as it may, my first thought when I saw this story was “Gosh, I sure hope other counties are this successful at getting poll workers”. But other counties may not be paying as well, or may not be able to pay as well. That’s an inequity situation if so, because it shouldn’t be the case that voting is easier and more accessible in one place due to financial constraints. This is another thing that could be addressed by the Legislature, by mandating a minimum level of pay and a minimum number of poll workers per location and locations per county, and allocating the money to cover costs above a certain level for each county so they can comply. I’m being overly simplistic here, but the point I’m making is that the state could be doing what Harris County has done this year, which is spend the money necessary to improve access to voting. I think we all know what will be required for that to happen. I’m just saying it’s something we can work to make happen.

Recruiting poll workers

One good thing Facebook has ever done.

Facebook has set out to recruit poll workers, providing free ads for state election officials to help fill jobs at voting centers in a very unusual election year.

“With the election less than three months away, we’re seeing a massive shortage of poll workers to staff our voting booths across the country because we are in a global pandemic,” said Facebook spokesman Robert Traynham.

The California tech giant has partnered with the nonpartisan Fair Election Center to share data about where to apply to be a poll worker based on a user’s location. Notifications posted in Saturday’s newsfeeds for all U.S. based Facebook users over 18 directing those who clicked to information about jobs with their state’s election offices.

The local effort to fill 11,000 such vacancies is going well, according to Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. He said he does not foresee a shortage, it’s just a matter of screening the flood of applicants, many of whom have worked the polls before.

“We have been very pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm for people to be election workers,” Hollins said. “We first put out the call a month and a half ago the immediate response to that was 500 to 700 applications a day.”

The office has had 9,000 applicants to date. The pay begins at $17 per hour and Hollins is hiring for multiple shifts and seven days a week during three weeks of early voting. To qualify, applicants must be 18 or older and registered to vote in Harris County, and may not be a relative or employee of a candidate or have a prior conviction for election fraud.

“People are just excited and more politically engaged than ever and want to be a part of the history that’s going to be made this year,” Hollins said. “During the time of COVID-19 and time of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the (Nicolas) Chavez news…I think people want to be a part of the change that they want to see in society and doing your civic duty and being a part of elections.”

For those of you in Harris County, go here to apply to be a poll worker. I’ve pointed this out to Olivia, the 16-year-old, and she was interested, but like her old man she’s kind of a procrastinator, so I will need to give her a nudge. If you’re in some other county, by all means check with your local election administrator. We all need to show up this year.

You may wonder, why does Harris County need this many poll workers? Here’s one reason:

Just behold all of the early voting locations here. The ones with the little car icon next to them (like Fallbrook Church, the first one listed on page 2), have curbside voting. Early voting in person starts October 13 – mail ballots will be sent out beginning later this week – so make your plan, and find a way to help someone else vote, too.