To fill poll worker shortage, could NJ look to teenagers?
Though they’re not eligible to vote, 16- and 17-year-olds would be able to serve as election workers under legislation moving through the state Senate.
The bill, S2209, has been endorsed by the Senate Labor Committee, which is involved because election workers are on the job for a roughly 15-hour day, from before the polls open at 6 a.m. to well after they close at 8 p.m.
Sen. Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, said such a law would be helpful for county boards of election during a health crisis such as the novel coronavirus.
“The challenge is a disproportionate number of poll workers are senior citizens. And obviously in this pandemic that we’re in, it is a real challenge,” Diegnan said. “In all honesty, I don’t think they should be worked as poll workers with the possibility of exposure to the virus.”
Under current law, people have to be at least 18 years old to serve as a poll worker. Diegnan said that lowering the age for poll workers – who are paid $200 per election – could get people interested in the system.
“We all know young people are not as interested in the electoral process as they should be,” he said. “And hopefully this could be a way, in addition to giving opportunities to fill the positions, to also get kids more interested in the election process. It’s important.”
The Senate doesn’t have another voting session until Oct. 29, five days before the election, and there isn’t yet a companion bill in the Assembly, so it’s unlikely to be in place to help this year. Diegnan first introduced the bill in March, but it didn’t get a hearing until last week.
“I put it forth as an option in case it’s needed,” Diegnan said. “My understanding is that most of the boards of election are not as challenged as we thought they might be because there’s not as many polling places open as there were normally. But again, it’s just an option.”
Even with the reduced number of polling places that will be open Nov. 3, as the election is being conducted mostly through the mail, an estimated 15,000 to 17,000 poll workers will still be needed.
Secretary of State Tahesha Way said various organizations have helped provide poll workers.
“I have to say the New Jersey Bar Association, they’re now encouraging young attorneys, the healthy able-bodied attorneys, and also law students,” Way said. “So, this is good to see given this is an unprecedented time for elections.”
Separate legislation proposed by Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, A4794, would encourage people who are unemployed to work on behalf of boards of election by exempting those wages from a person’s eligibility for jobless benefits.
Currently, only Election Day work is exempt from the state’s unemployment compensation law. Schepisi said counties may also need help counting the millions of mail-in votes that are expected.
“We shouldn’t be punishing our unemployed workers who sign up to ensure the democratic process continues during this public health emergency,” Schepisi said. “Encouraging participation by letting workers keep a little more money in their pockets is the least we can do.”
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.