Amid fears of voter security and safety, Nebraska’s 93 counties continue to adapt to the national shortage of election workers — by using volunteer drafts and partnerships with neighboring counties to the institution of mail-only processes.
According to Vet the Vote, a national campaign to recruit veterans and military family members to become the next generation of poll workers, the country experienced a shortage of more than 130,000 poll workers during the 2022 general election, a number that’s grown consistently over the past three elections.
“In 2020, COVID-19 really put a damper on volunteerism,” Vet the Vote co-founder Joe Plenzler said. “The people that typically run election sites are 60 and older — 25% of them are 70 and older. And then reports in the media about threats of violence toward election officials exacerbated the issue.”
Plenzler and others from his organization met with the Electoral Assistance Commission in Washington, D.C., as well as the National Association of Secretaries of State, determining that if 5% of the nation’s veterans volunteered, the election worker gap could be bridged.
With a population of nearly 130,000 veterans and a shortage of under 10,000 poll workers, this approach could be viable for Nebraska, but it has yet to make the top 10 list of states most engaged with Vet the Vote’s campaign.
In the meantime, some counties have turned to a decades-old provision. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Nebraska is the only state to permit jurisdictions to “draft” poll workers in the same fashion as courts select jury members.
Originally implemented in 1994, and amended four times in the years since, Nebraska Revised Statute 32-221 allows Election Commissioners to appoint election workers including, but not limited to, judges, clerks, inspectors and canvassing board members. Any registered voter within the county is eligible.
According to previous Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse, drafted election workers must serve four elections to complete their service and will be notified 60 days before an election if they’re being called on.
Although some residents might be able to opt out if they’re more than 70 years old, have a medical exemption, are traveling outside the country or attending college in another state, are no longer living in the county or have a connection to a candidate’s campaign, it’s a class five misdemeanor to not serve.
“The number of voters drafted as election workers in Douglas County depends upon our need for election workers,” Douglas County Election Commissioner Valerie Stoj said. “We consider the number of active volunteers as well as drafted election workers already involved.”
According to Stoj, roughly half of Douglas County’s election workers are volunteers, and half are draftees. Typically, 1,600 election workers are required for primaries and 2,000 for general elections.
Sarpy County Resident Trevor Lewis had no idea this was something that could happen. Shortly after serving his jury duty, he received a letter informing him he’d been drafted once again — this time to work the election.
“It was back-to-back punches from Sarpy County,” Lewis said. He added that he understands the idea but felt the process could use some vetting. “For me, it was 13 hours of nothingness. The entire time, I was just sitting there in small-town Nebraska, putting ballots in a box. We saw maybe 400 people throughout the day.”
Counties are only required to pay draftees minimum wage, expecting companies to make up the difference between the low pay and the employee’s salary. For the 13-hour workday, employees can expect less than $150 in their paycheck.
Although Lewis said he felt the draft could be helpful in situations where workers were truly needed, he thought the county should’ve tried to consolidate jobs first. Having multiple people staff a table to put people’s ballots in a box for them felt unnecessary and redundant, he said.
As of now, only two counties actively take advantage of the provision: Douglas County and Sarpy County. However, election commissioners across the state have noted an upward trend in the difficulty of securing enough election workers over time.
“Buffalo County has not used the poll worker draft in the past since I’ve been in office,” Buffalo County Election Commissioner Lisa Poff said. “We did not use the draft this year either. As for the future, if it continues to be more difficult each election cycle, we may have to.”
Both Election Commissioners Patti Lindgren of Saunders County and Carrie Miller of Nuckolls County said that while they’ve considered the draft in the past, it hasn’t been necessary since they’ve always found volunteers to serve. Recently, due to a mixture of COVID-19 and general animosity surrounding elections, they said it’s become a lot more difficult.
In order to avoid the measure, other counties have gone to extremes, with some transitioning to all-mail processes and others reaching out to eligible residents individually.
“For the May primary, I was short workers in one of my precincts and mailed close to 400 letters requesting volunteers,” Dakota County Election Commissioner Joan Spencer said. “Although the response wasn’t overwhelming, I did get more than enough poll workers.”
Election Commissioner April Warren of Blaine County said that while they’ve been lucky to have enough workers in the past, she’s willing to consider other options. However, that doesn’t seem to include a draft.
“I understand that we are able to use election board workers from neighboring counties if we cannot find enough from our county,” Warren said. “If we need to do that, we are first required to request approval from the Secretary of State. This looks to be a good option in the event there is a problem.”
Although the draft seems to temporarily fix the problem, it doesn’t seem a viable long-term solution for fostering civic engagement.
“Before you tell somebody to do something, we ought to ask them first,” Plenzler said. “It’s always better to have someone volunteer than to be voluntold…. There’s plenty of civic organizations and groups that exist within communities and it’s just taking time and effort to reach out and let people know that they’re needed.”