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Salt Lake County asks businesses to sponsor a few good poll workers



It’s nearly time to vote. But first, a word from our sponsors.

“We are extending this unique opportunity to play a part in the democratic process while boosting your corporation’s recognition and standing in the community,” read letters recently sent to county businesses from the Salt Lake County Elections Division.

The pitch: give your employees the day off Election Day to volunteer as poll workers and, in return, become an official election sponsor. Under the new county program, businesses that recruit five employees become an “official sponsor” of a voting location of company’s choice.

Wait, there’s more: Poll workers are encouraged to wear corporate insignias, “boosting your recognition among hundreds of voters,” the elections division letter continues. Participating businesses will additionally be recognized in the county’s “voter information notice” printed in newspapers the Sunday before Election Day. And companys’ logos will be posted on the county elections division Web page, “the most visited Web page in county government.”

The drive is the latest effort to solve a crisis facing every county clerk in the country as Election Day approaches: getting enough volunteers to give up the day to work polling places.

The poll-worker shortage was compounded by last year’s introduction of electronic-voting machines. In Salt Lake County, the introduction has meant increasing the number of poll workers by two-thirds. Then there is the problem of finding workers at a technical skill level sufficient to stop a VCR clock from blinking “12:00” Retirees make up the bulk of poll volunteers, but not all are comfortable with the new vote machines.

“Poll worker recruitment is always difficult,” said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, author of the pitch to businesses. “But as the population in the county grows we need more poll workers. And with groups who have served for many years feeling they can’t do it any longer, it’s increasingly difficult.

The idea of tapping the business community is an offshoot of last year’s successful county effort to recruit new, tech-savvy poll workers from the ranks of county government. Mayor Peter Corroon asked agency heads to give volunteers the day off with pay. More than 100 signed up.

Traditionally, each county polling place had three poll workers. With the start of computerized voting, Swensen added two more per poll, each specially trained in the new equipment. The primary purpose of the new drive is to recruit needed workers, she said, but she also hopes sponsorship might save the county a little money. If some businesses volunteer to pick up the tab for their employees’ day at the polls, the county would be off the hook for the $120-$220 per-person stipend.

The amount the county shells out on poll workers shot up with the new electronic-vote machines to $391,000 in 2006. That poll-worker stipend payout was up 40 percent from the punch-card election two years earlier.

With the new machines, the price of training poll workers jumped from $2,104 in 2004 to $107,000 in 2006.

Before the advent of the machines, the county trained all its workers in 18 large-group sessions. Last year, it put on 300 sessions with the vote machine and hired a training consultant.

Swensen’s recruiting idea gets a good review from Thad Hall, an assistant political science professor at the University of Utah who has studied poll workers. Recruiting through businesses could improve elections if the county clerk targeted companies whose employees are tech-savvy and used to dealing with the public, he said.

Hall’s studies of poll workers in Utah and New Mexico determined that the number and quality of poll workers can make a big difference in whether voters believe elections are fair. If a worker jams a memory card into the voting machine upside down, it doesn’t inspire voter confidence.

A potential side benefit might be getting businesses to donate space. The future lies in “convenience voting,” with voters able to cast ballots anywhere, he said, but many polling places in businesses will be needed to make the idea work.

Hall noted possible pitfalls. For example, if the county couldn’t discriminate, it might end up with an embarrassing or unsavory company sponsoring an election. Then there’s the possibility of a sponsoring company being closely tied to a candidate.

What would have happened, he mused, if, during Ellis Ivory’s 2004 write-in campaign for Salt Lake County Mayor, the helpful poll workers were wearing Ivory Homes T-shirts?