Philadelphia Election Boards Short-Staffed, Underpaid

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WORKERS who staff Phila. polling places face an arduous shift with grave responsibilities for minimal pay

BY TONY WEST/ The most-important job in our democracy pays less than minimum wage in Philadelphia. And the customers aren’t even allowed to tip the workers.

Approximately 7,500 election-board workers staff the city’s 1,686 divisions twice a year, in the spring and fall. They run the polls from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Since they must show up earlier to set up and stay later to close down and see to it the votes get delivered, they put in a 14-hour day each election. Ideally there should be 8,000; many polling stations are short-staffed.

Each division has a board consisting (ideally) of a Judge of Elections, a Majority and Minority Inspector, a Clerk and a Machine Operator. If there are three or more machines, there are usually 2 Machine Operators. Boards designated as needing language assistance also have an Interpreter.

For this labor, the Judge is paid $100, the other election-board members $95 and the translator $75. This amounts to $7.14/hour for the judge and $6.79/hour for the others (don’t even think about the translator). The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25/hour.

Is this a good way to fund a vital civic process? Should we continue to run elections on a pay scale even a french-fry cook would turn up his nose at?

Philadelphia City Commission, which handles elections, has long been advocating higher pay for election-board workers. But it is limited in what it can do. It is a strange business even as public businesses go. Its heads are elected independently of the Mayor and City Council; but it has no revenue sources of its own and lives on a budget determined by those other branches of government. City Commission can ask for money but must make do with what it is given.

“It is clear that the administration and City Council share this concern. It is only a matter of resources,” said Commission Vice Chair Al Schmidt.

The current City Commissioners came into office in the throes of a recession-borne budget crisis. Their first requests for across-the-board pay hikes for their workers fell by the wayside. This spring, they squeezed a token improvement out of their existing budget, offering $5 bumps for election-board workers who attend 45-minute training sessions, to $25.

“Training is critically important,” said Schmidt. “The City Controller has found that to be the case. We completely the revamped election-training process last year to make it a lot better.” But no one expects this increase to change their labor market dramatically.

What of next year’s budget? Mayor Michael Nutter has proposed a modest increase of 5.8% in City Commission’s budget for the 2014-15 Fiscal Year, from $8,889,000 to $9,403,000. That’s more than other agencies and departments have been offered; excluding pensions and human resources, which are complicated by the controversial plan to sell PGW and by labor uncertainties, overall city allocations are proposed to go up by 2.4%, to $2,633,000,000.

But several other small city functions are being offered million-plus increases. City Commission’s total budget is about one-third of 1% of the City’s total. It’s a rounding error.

The Commission’s proposed budget bump would not revolutionize election-board pay; it is allocated for new voting machines. Currently $1.5 million of City Commission’s annual budget is allocated to paying polling-place workers. (Actually it spends less because many divisions are short-staffed.) Suppose this pay were to be doubled, to $200 a day for election judges, for instance. City Commission would need a permanent budget increase of $1.5 million to cover that.

To Double Or Not – That Is The Question

Why talk of doubling? Because commonwealth law permits counties to do that, for one thing, stated Schmidt. And because in some other states, election-day pay already runs higher than $200.

Recruiting for boards of election is arcane and complicated. Judges and Inspectors are elected for four-year terms in their divisions. Often, though, nobody runs for some of these offices. In that case, the Republican and Democratic City Committees can petition a Common Pleas Court judge to appoint people. When that fails, these slots can be filled in a “curbside election” on the morning of that election.

The Clerk is appointed by the Minority Inspector. The Machine Inspector can be appointed by the City Commissioners but in practice usually by curbside election. Machine Inspectors can live and work in any division.

The result is a weird, ad hoc collaboration between City Commission, the Court System, the political parties and grassroots voters. “But the whole idea is to not disrupt election day, keep it running smoothly,” noted Schmidt. City Commission pays these workers but they don’t really “work for” City Commission.

The Judge of Elections runs the polling place. He or she is the boss. The Machine Inspector sets the machine. The Majority/Minority Inspectors and Clerk manage the “book” and the “card”. They inspect the photo ID of first-time voters. They see to it each voter signs the poll book and assign a voter number; then the Clerk records this transaction in a separate book. This way there is triple confirmation: The clerk book number equals the poll book number equals the machine number.

At the end of the evening, the board shuts down the machines, printing out a machine tape first. They remove a cartridge from the machine which contains an electronic record of all votes cast. It is put in a sealed bag which a police officer picks up; the officer takes a pouch with cartridge and machine tape inside to remote locations around the city for rapid processing.

If all 1,686 divisions had separate staffs, the city would need 8,000 election-board workers. But because many divisions double up in the same polling place, there are opportunities to economize on personnel.

Still it’s hard to fill these positions – “and getting harder harder every year,” Schmidt observed. “A challenge even for the majority party.”

There were 3,070 Judges of Elections, Majority Inspectors, and Minority Inspectors elected in the 2013 general election.  About 2,000 more had to be appointed, by hook or by crook.

And election-board workers are an aging crew. Recently the City Commission has been doing a statistical sampling of them. Their average age is 63, their median age 70.

“It is a problem, especially in the last few years, as people who had held the position for a number of years retire. It is difficult to find someone to replace them. Most often they cite the hours. It is difficult to get someone in there all day,” commented State Sen. Shirley Kitchen, who is 20th Ward Leader in North Philadelphia.

Finding Younger Workers Is Hampered By Low Pay

Younger people find 14-hour days daunting too, noted State Sen. Anthony Williams, who is 3rd Ward Leader in West Philadelphia. “It would be nice if all poll workers served out of civic duty, but money does incentivize some,” he said. “This is a society where people who have modest incomes are working two, three jobs.” Now it’s impossible to rely on that labor pool to commit to a low-paying, 14-hour spot-labor assignment, he explained.

Kitchen wonders if setting up half-day shifts wouldn’t make it easier to accommodate some of this modern labor market.

“It’s not a challenge to fill the spots. We have a lot of bodies,” said Pat Parkinson of the 57th Ward in the Northeast. “The issue is, do they have the day off? If they were able to give them a fair wage, more people would be willing to forgo a day’s pay.”

“That’s no money for all those hours,” said El Amor Brawne Ali of North Philadelphia’s 30th Ward. “It’s a matter of equal pay for equal work. Whatever they give us, it’s nothing. We (ward leaders) give it back in to them in food or a pack of cigarettes sometimes. I think they give more than they receive.”

A serious pay increase at the county level would not solve all our election problems. Rondal Couser, who leads Northwest Philly’s 22nd Ward, is worried Philadelphia will draw wrath from the rest of the state, fairly or not, if it forges ahead on its own in this way. “I think the State should mandate a fair wage for election boards and not leave it up to the City,” he said.

Taking the load off election-day poll work would be a smart move, advised Center City’s 5th Ward Leader Mike Boyle. Many other states spread out voting over days or weeks in advance of that first Tuesday in November; he’d like to see that in Pennsylvania.

West Philadelphia’s 27th Ward Leader Carol Jenkins questioned our quirky delegation of polling-place staffing management to party ward committees instead of city bureaucrats. “City Commission has no organizers for election boards, unlike New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles,” she pointed out. “A couple of City Commission people have helped me out in crisis situations,” she said; she’d be glad to see civil-service managers take over this task.

How you pay workers – and when – is also important, stated Al Stewart, who leads the 11th Ward in North Philadelphia. “It takes them at least a month to get paid. Sometimes for a November job they get paid in December,” he groused. Most minimum-wage workers at least get their wage fast; not if they’re making democracy happen, though.

Schmidt agrees with that. “One key thing is to make sure election-board workers can get paid more quickly,” he insisted. He vows City Commission is looking into ways to streamline this pay flow.

But a workforce of thousands of people in sensitive positions, heavily encumbered by legal burdens, who only show up for work two days a year, is a strange beast. Even its payroll system poses rare challenges to managers.

Good Pay Leads To Good Elections

In all honesty, systematically underpaying every line worker is probably not the best way to run an inner-city election.

Legitimate concerns are raised at times about the honesty and competency of Philadelphia election. So are illegitimate concerns. Elections, after all, are the business end of politics. Citizens have a right to be suspicious and critical of election work.

But they don’t have a right to expect superior performance from inferior pay. This is not how the business world works.

All ward leaders affirmed what most voters already know: their own election-board workers are conscientious, diligent neighbors who are motivated by civic spirit and social pleasure to meet and help hundreds of their neighbors do something good on a long, grueling day.

But if problems ever arise within this system, low pay is guaranteed to make them worse. Afraid these workers make mistakes? Ill-paid workers turn over more and are less experienced. Worried about corruption? Well, who do you think can be more easily corrupted – a $100 worker or a $200 worker? Good government argues for good pay then. Election work is not the right place for belt-tightening in city government.

Good economics also argues for good pay. As City Commissioner Stephanie Singer remarked, “That money goes right into Philadelphia neighborhoods. If you decided you wanted to pump a little more money into the Philadelphia economy, evenly and fairly across the city, you couldn’t find a better way to do it! These jobs are a good stimulus.”

Some critics lose sleep over public-employee drones pushing unneeded papers around on dusty desks. But that’s not what election-board workers are. These are ordinary citizens, usually with a larger-than-average social conscience, who pitch in to keep ours a government “by the people.” They are the people. They are us. Shouldn’t they be paid like us?

“Poll workers are the front line of democracy,” said Singer. “The more you pay for work, the easier it is to retain and recruit people and ask them to do what needs to be done.”

Deep in the trenches of working-class democracy, Ward Leader Stewart agrees: “If these people were better paid, I could get a whole lot better poll workers.”

This is the week City Council begins to review and respond to the Mayor’s 2014-15 budget proposal for City Commission along with all the rest of city government.

City Commission Chair Anthony Clark (himself a ward leader, of the 28th Ward), is confident it can administer a meaningful pay increase for election-board workers if his budget permits it. “Our mission is to run the best election possible for the City of Philadelphia,” he said. “If we are given the resources to carry out this assignment properly, we can give a concrete accounting these monies have been well spent.”

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3 Responses to Philadelphia Election Boards Short-Staffed, Underpaid

  1. Kudos to the Public Record for doing this piece and taking a serious look at this issue. Philadelphia should be continually educated on the challenges the City Commissioners face in getting the public to engage.

    Every year, the three Commissioners and the County Board of Elections led by Tim Dowling take on the Herculean task of getting us efficient and fair elections. They do a standup, damn fine job.

    Our City and particularly, the millennial generation that have now become a huge part of the population owe these public servants a debt of thanks … starting with participating in the process en masse.

    Hey Now
    April 25, 2014 at 9:47 am

  2. I would love to be a poll worker I am even willing to volunteer my time. I kindly ask if someone can let me know the process that involves becoming a poll worker whom I have to contact

    Keshia
    April 30, 2014 at 9:19 pm

  3. Keshia,

    Tell us what block you live on and we will refer you to the right person.

    editor @pr
    May 1, 2014 at 12:14 pm

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