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Board of Elections Seeks Raise for Poll Workers Despite Voters' Complaints

By Jill Colvin | December 6, 2012 10:55am

CITY HALL — The Board of Elections wants the city to boost poll workers’ pay by $100, despite thousands of voter complaints and a system that critics pan for causing one disastrous election after the next.

Board of Elections officials called on Mayor Michael Bloomberg Wednesday to sign an executive order that would raise per-day pay for poll workers from $200 to $300, and pay for election coordinators from $300 to $400 — all on the taxpayers' dime.

“Over a decade has passed since the last increase in poll-worker compensation,” said Pamela Perkins, an administrative manager at the board who argued the job has grown more difficult over the years.

The request came during a City Council hearing called to address the failures of the Nov. 6 general election, when frustrated voters were forced to wait as long as six hours to cast their ballots.

The most recent election took place just days after Superstorm Sandy, forcing poll workers to scramble to protect machines, move voting sites and transport colleagues to election sites. But members of the City Council said that while the storm may have made things more difficult, there are larger problems at work.

"The long lines and confusion that faced voters on Election Day were not entirely the fault of the storm,” City Council Speaker Quinn said. She pointed to systematic problems, including badly trained poll workers and archaic procedures that she said the board “must absolutely fix."

Officials revealed that the board received nearly 8,000 calls from angry voters on Election Day, including 2,069 complaints about poll workers' conduct. That included “behavioral issues” and poll workers failing to follow procedures, officials said.

To address these issues, the board announced a series of new proposals, including an effort to improve poll-worker preparation by hiring an independent company to design a professional training program that all poll workers would be required to take. The board is also planning to require poll workers to meet more stringent language qualifications.

The commissioners also announced a plan to push for a new “civic engagement” requirement at colleges across the state that would force all students to serve as paid poll workers for a year as a prerequisite for graduation.

“This would provide a new source of poll workers who are more familiar and comfortable working with electronic systems such as the new poll-site voting system," Perkins said.

Douglas Kellner, co-chairman of the New York State Board of Elections, agreed in separate testimony that poll workers need more specialized training, and said the city should seriously consider boosting poll workers' pay.

“It’s been a long time since compensation was increased,” Kellner said, noting that there was a “huge increase” in applications when former Mayor Rudy Giuliani upped the pay back in 2001.

He said the board is also desperately understaffed. For instance, he said, the board's Manhattan office employs only six clerks who staff 12 Assembly districts and earn $25,000 a year each.

But Kellner also blamed the New York City Board of Elections for failing to hire enough people to staff poll sites for the presidential election, even though he said officials were told repeatedly that they would face problems.

State law requires that polls be staffed so that no voter has to wait in line longer than 30 minutes — a standard that was not met on Election Day.

"The New York City Board of Elections failed miserably in complying with this regulation," Kellner said. He said that failure was "ironic" for a board that "has adopted a strict constructionist attitude in terms of complying with ambiguous provisions of the law."

He also pressed the city board to do a better job evaluating poll workers so they know which workers should be avoided next year, and called for pay deductions if workers don’t file their paperwork or if they they show up late on Election Day.

The mayor's office did not immediately respond to questions about whether Bloomberg might support the plans. Officials estimated that adding new staff alone would cost $4 million a year.

In addition to the proposals, officials also warned Wednesday that the city is headed toward “potential catastrophe” unless lawmakers in Albany vote to move up the city’s primary day in 2013.

Kellner said “it is absolutely urgent” that state lawmakers act to move the city’s 2013 primary — when New Yorkers will vote for candidates for the mayoral election — from September to June. The date change would give officials enough time to stage a run-off election in case any citywide candidate fails to garner more than 40 percent of the vote, he said.

“The time between the primary election and the runoff election is inadequate,” he said, warning that "there is a potential for a meltdown if there is a close primary election."

“That’s an urgent priority,” he said of the move, which has already been approved by the Assembly, but still must clear the Senate.