Thursday, October 19, 2006

Student Pollworkers To Be Sworn In

I knew about this earlier, since last month the City of Charlottesville Electoral Board approved the applications of some 75 University of Virginia and Piedmont Virginia Community College students to be election officials.

But now it looks so much more official, with this press release from the University's Center for Politics arriving in my email box:

Center for Politics Hosts Swearing-In Ceremony for Student Poll Workers from U.Va., PVCC --Center for Politics and Offices of Voter Registration Partner to Help Staff Midterm Elections--

CHARLOTTESVILLE – In a new effort to expand civic activity among young citizens, as well as to provide additional staffing at local polling places, the University of Virginia Center for Politics has partnered with the City of Charlottesville Office of Voter Registration and the Albemarle Country Department of Voter Registration & Elections to announce this fall’s Student Poll Worker Swearing-In Ceremony, to take place at 11:00 a.m. on Monday, October 23, at The Rotunda Dome Room on the grounds of the University of Virginia.

This event is hosted by University Professor Larry J. Sabato and the Center for Politics, with City of Charlottesville General Registrar Sheri Iachetta and Albemarle County Elections Manager Clarice Schermerhorn presiding over the ceremony. Several additional special guests will be on hand for the swearing-in ceremony. Members of the media are encouraged to attend.

Currently over 80 students from the University of Virginia and Piedmont Virginia Community College have registered to participate, with training to be completed in time for them to serve as poll workers in the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County during the November 7 elections for U.S. Senate, House and the three statewide ballot issues.

In attendance at the Student Poll Worker Swearing-In Ceremony will be Federal Election Assistance Commissioner Gracia Hillman, Virginia State Board of Elections Secretary Jean Jensen and Charlottesville Mayor David Brown, along with Iachetta, Schermerhorn and Sabato.

* Event: Student Poll Worker Swearing-In Ceremony
* Location: The Rotunda Doom Room, University of Virginia
* Date: Monday, October 23, 2006
* Time: 11:00 a.m.

The Center for Politics and these Offices of Voter Registration have joined together to fight the alarming trend of civic apathy among the younger demographics. As a group, students and young adults are the least likely to turn out to the polls and vote. While this poses a challenge to programs aiming to increase youth participation, the program seeks to overcome this problem by offering students a unique perspective on democracy.

In August 2006, the Center for Politics was awarded a federal grant from the United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC), to develop programs to recruit and train college students as non-partisan poll workers on Election Day. The awards are part of the Help America Vote College Program which was established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) to promote college student involvement. The fund will be used to encourage students enrolled at institutions of higher education (including community colleges) to assist in the administration of elections.

“Elections continue to require many more trained poll workers, and these grants will train the next generation,” said EAC Chairman Paul DeGregorio. “We encourage America’s college students to answer the call and provide the critical human resources needed to make democracy happen.”

This funding will allow for the continuation and expansion of the Student Poll Worker Program, begun in early 2006 as a partnership between the Center for Politics and the City of Charlottesville Office of Voter Registration. During the city elections on May 2, 2006, twenty-six University of Virginia students served as poll workers at voting precincts throughout the city, lowering the average age of poll workers in Charlottesville from 55 to 47 years.

According to Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato, “This is a remarkable opportunity for students to participate directly in the American electoral process and become more knowledgeable, engaged citizens. Polling places are the Roman Forums of American politics--they are invaluable opportunities for citizens to come together to support representative democracy, and these students will truly appreciate the uniqueness of our system once they have seen it for themselves.”
I have written before about the need for new and younger election officials. (The average age of pollworkers across the country is over 70.)

The presence of the college students will also be helpful because Charlottesville will be deploying electronic poll books this year for the first time. (As usual, Charlottesville is on the cutting edge in voting technology. We are testing the new e-pollbooks in the full expectation that this will become not just permitted, but required, statewide in the not-too-distant future.) We expect synergy: The student pollworkers will be paired with more experienced election officials, who know the mechanics of election day procedures, and the students can bring their familiarity with electronic devices to the table.

Williamsburg, another college town, has also tested electronic pollbooks, finding that the amount of time voters stand in line waiting their turn has been cut down considerably. As explained by John Yellig in Monday's Daily Progress,
The e-poll books contain the same voter information traditionally found in the heavy paper rosters used by poll workers. But while the paper rosters only contained information for an individual precinct, the e-poll books have information on all of the locality’s voters, which could come in handy for first-time voters who go to the wrong precinct.

In the past, poll workers could only tell voters to call the registrar to find out where to vote. With the e-book, the workers can look up voters and point them in the right direction.

“It has worked wonderfully,” said Dave Andrews, Williamsburg’s voter registrar. “The officers of the election, even folks who have no real computer experience, found it easy to use and were able to find the voters quicker.”
In November 2004, Delegate Robert Marshall (R-Manassas) was upset when the lines at his polling place were unusually long. (You'll remember that the 2004 presidential election had historically high turnout.) To remedy this, he introduced legislation the next year, HB 1808, which "requires the State Board of Elections to provide instructions for the division of pollbooks and voter lists into sections for the efficient processing of voter lines at the polls."

The proposal makes no sense, since local election officials are far more qualified to figure out how best to divide the pollbooks in their jurisdiction than bureaucrats in distant Richmond are. (Should it be A-K and L-Z or A-H, I-Q, and R-Z? A lot depends on local conditions, like the number of Shiffletts registered to vote in a single precinct.) But to my astonishment, the bill passed the General Assembly and is now part of Section 24.2-404 of the Virginia Code.

Having electronic pollbooks eliminates the need for splits. The electronic pollbook can hold the entire, statewide voter registration list, so if a voter from, say, Fluvanna County shows up to vote in Charlottesville, we'll be able to tell him or her where to go to find the appropriate precinct and polling place. (This will really solve problems regarding Alumni Hall Precinct, in the City of Charlottesville, and University Hall Precinct, in Albemarle County, both of which serve UVa populations.) Lines will move faster, and calls from chief election officers to the Office of Voter Registration and Elections will be reduced exponentially.

And having the college pollworkers there, too, beefing up the staff of election officials for the very long day (5:00 a.m. to past 7:00 p.m.), will help a lot in making the whole voting experience more efficient and fun.

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