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Orange County Elects to Beef Up Poll-Worker Recruiting Effort

Chambers of commerce are enlisted in the bid to attract 7,000 people. Officials are more than halfway to their goal.

August 24, 2004|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The job pays about $3 per hour, requires a 16-hour workday and conditions that are at times stressful and demanding. No wonder Orange County often struggles to recruit poll workers for election day.

The effort is all the more challenging this year: Orange County set a goal of attracting 7,000 workers for the November election -- about 2,600 more than served at the polls during the March primary.

That's part of the reason the county decided to overhaul its recruiting efforts, which had focused primarily on contacting past poll workers and on cold telephone calls to solicit help from registered voters.

The registrar of voters office joined chambers of commerce throughout the county and started pitching business owners about the idea of volunteering on election day. Election officials hit up local service organizations and major employers such as Disneyland and State Farm, which both agreed to encourage workers to take an unpaid day off and work the polls, said Neal Kelley, the county's chief deputy registrar of voters.

With roughly 2 1/2 months left before the election, 4,600 people have offered to work at Orange County polling places, and election officials say they're confident the county will reach its goal.

"We took a business approach to it," Kelley said. "We're not selling a product. But we are a government agency in need of help.... Once you get these people energized and show them how important they are and how much we need them, they're willing to drop what they're doing and help."

Typical of the registrar's new approach was a recent visit to the Tustin Chamber of Commerce, where Kelley demonstrated the county's new electronic voting system and pitched the poll-worker idea as public service -- and a possible fundraising opportunity. Chamber members could donate their $50 stipends to the chamber, he suggested.

Several business owners signed up on the spot. The meeting also generated an unusual partnership -- American Pizzeria's co-owner, Naresh Worlikar, agreed to attach advertisements for poll worker recruiting to the top of every pizza box the company delivers.

"You have to give to the community.... Without the community, I'm nowhere," Worlikar said.

Tustin Realtor Patti Winter, who's planning to volunteer election day, said the registrar's strategy makes sense.

"Most of us who own our own businesses are out talking to people a lot, so we can help recruit," she said.

Recruiting and training poll workers is particularly important in Orange County, where mistakes by poorly trained workers caused thousands of voters to end up voting on the wrong electronic ballots in the March election.

The county has revised its training program to provide workers more hands-on time with the equipment during three-hour training sessions before the November election. And if Kelley is successful, the county will have more workers at each polling place than it did in March.

Supervisor Chris Norby, who worked at a Fullerton polling place in March, said he supports the registrar's new approach.

"We need to reach out to a new generation of volunteers. Those we have now, many of them came from the spirit of volunteerism of the '50s," he said. "We need to educate a whole new group of people about the benefits of volunteering."

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