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Closing Security Gaps in Poll Worker Policy

The Brief

Unanimously Endorsed by the Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force on Elections

Poll workers are the backbone of the democratic process, and the smooth functioning of elections relies on the hundreds of thousands of these part time workers across the country. Poll workers and other temporary election workers support all aspects of the election process, from setting up voting equipment to checking in voters to assisting in the counting of ballots. Election workers are your neighbors, your friends and family members, and they protect the security of American elections.

There is mounting concern that temporary election workers recruited and trained by organizations with nefarious intent may undermine security and trust in the election process. Since 2020, there have been several isolated incidents in which temporary election workers attempted to undermine election administration in pursuit of partisan goals. Before the Michigan primary, some poll workers were instructed to unplug voting equipment in the name of rooting out fraud. On September 29, a Michigan poll worker was charged with falsifying records and tampering with voting equipment during the August primary. We condemn any effort designed with the intent of using temporary election workers to undermine the credibility of the election ecosystem.

While there is reason to be concerned, to date insider threats have been isolated, identified, and thoroughly investigated. Americans should feel confident in their elections systems for two reasons: (1) overwhelmingly, election workers are patriotic American citizens devoted to free and fair elections, and (2) most states and localities have guidelines for recruiting, training, and managing temporary election workers.

Befitting their indispensable role in guaranteeing open and secure elections, temporary election worker service is guided by laws, regulations, and preparation that is determined by the states and localities where they serve. These include:

  • Temporary election worker training. Recruiting, training, and managing temporary election workers varies from state to state. Adherence to statutes and procedures ensures the security of the election at the precinct level and assures voter access. Quality training and certification increase professionalism. Only a few states have no mandated training requirements, but even those states offer training modules, and most localities go above and beyond minimum requirements.
  • Codes of conduct and oaths of office. Many states also require temporary election workers to take an oath before beginning their duties in an election office. The oath of office is a foundational element that holds public employees and officials accountable. While criminal charges rarely result from oath violations, laws exist that attach failure to perform along a spectrum of malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance. Oaths are integral to maintaining standards of professional conduct and affirming commitments to foundational democratic principles.
  • Partisan parity. Many states require election administrators to strive for balance in the political party affiliation of temporary election workers. These parity standards are one of many checks and balances that protect the integrity of U.S. elections.
  • Disruption, dereliction, and removal. Most states have clearly defined policies to address the intentional disruption of voting, dereliction of duties by a poll worker, as well as a process for removal of individuals who are not fulfilling their duties and responsibilities.
  • Protecting election workers from threats, harassment, and intimidation. Election workers must be able to do their jobs free from harassment and intimidation. All workers—whether permanent or temporary, paid or volunteer—deserve to feel safe. Amid a rise in threats against election workers, Colorado, Maine, and Oregon have passed laws that increase legal protections for election workers. These laws, along with increased attention from the Department of Justice, serve as the first step toward deterring and safeguarding our elections from threats.

While many states and localities do an excellent job of articulating and enforcing governing rules poll worker training, codes of conduct, partisan parity and poll worker protection, gaps and discrepancies remain. To close the gaps in poll worker policy, state legislatures should consider codifying bipartisan or multi-partisan involvement in the election process, universalizing codes of conduct that affirm professionalism and ethics, requiring thorough training and preparation, articulating clear uniform dismissal policies, and increasing legal protections for temporary election workers in the 2023 legislative session.

Partisan conflict threatens the integrity of our election system. Clarifying state standards for temporary election workers presents an opportunity to improve election security, build trust, and insulate elections from partisan actors.

The Bipartisan Policy Center will release a comprehensive review on the state of poll worker policies and offer guidance for enhancements in its forthcoming report, “Fortifying Election Security through Poll Worker Policy.”

This explainer is unanimously endorsed by the BPC Task Force on Elections. The Task Force is a geographically and politically diverse group of 28 state and local election officials from 20 states devoted to making meaningful improvements to American elections. Members of the Task Force include:

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