The state needs 136 poll workers to run about 13 polling stations in the central Honolulu neighborhood of Kalihi for the Aug. 11 primary, but only two people had signed up as of Friday.
Hawaii’s aging poll workers aren’t being replaced by enough fresh faces, causing officials at the state Office of Elections to worry.
Just half of the almost 3,000 positions available have been filled so far for the upcoming primary.
Like most polling places in the state, Kalihi typically has fewer polling workers than it needs and this year is no different.
Aside from the critical task of manning polling stations, Hawaii needs registered or pre-registered voters to dedicate their time answering calls at the Capitol control center, troubleshooting issues that inevitably arise on election day.
“We really can’t have elections without these volunteers,” said April Bautista, an elections specialist for the state. “When you don’t have enough people things fall through.”
People tend to sign up last minute, a week or two before the election. Sometimes they sign up but don’t actually show up on election day.
Bautista, 31, has spent the past few months presenting at neighborhood boards, posting flyers around Oahu and reaching out to poll workers, nonprofits and school groups that participated in the 2016 elections to see if they’ll return this year.
Before that she combed through signatures on candidate filings and revised the mandatory training course that poll workers take.
Elections are the cornerstone of American democracy, and besides that, at least for Bautista, running elections is exciting.
“We have two years to put on this big show,” said Bautista.
She remembers the adrenaline she felt staying at the Capitol until 9 p.m. the day before the 2016 general election, only to return at 3 a.m. the next morning.
“It’s quite a project, setting up a polling place for the day,” said Bill Troutman, who has volunteered for more than 20 years. “It’s like setting up an intricate business.”
As the chairman of Kauai’s Kilauea district precinct, Troutman, 66, oversees schoolteachers and millionaires alike who work the polls. In recent years, Troutman has noticed fewer young people have turned out.
“I don’t know if they just want to look at their Ipad or YouTubes all day but we’re not getting as many young people as we should be getting,” he said.
Poll workers are paid from $85 to $175 per day depending on their position, an incentive for charitable organizations and sports teams to get on board.
Pearl City High School’s senior class earned almost $4,000 toward its “Project Grad” graduation celebration after classmates worked at the polls during the 2016 elections.
Poll workers must be at least 16 years old on or before June 30 to qualify, and they must participate in a hour-long training session.
People are asked to sign up at the Office of Elections website before July 23 for the primary.
Bautista wants to register 20 percent more poll workers than the office actually needs this year. That’s because historically only about 80 percent of those who participated in the training show up for the election.
“A lot of people were overwhelmed,” Bautista said of the 2016 elections, when only 85 percent of registered poll workers showed up on Oahu.
Every year Troutman of Kauai struggles to recruit enough qualified poll workers, stretching thin those who do dedicate their time. The result is longer lines for voters and, in some cases, “people who have limited time because their family or job end up maybe not having enough time to vote,” he said.
Bautista worries understaffed polling places also undermine the public’s confidence in the democratic process.
“We want to make sure voters feel good,” she said. “That (their ballot is) safe, it’s counted, it’s not just lying around.”
State lawmakers killed a bill this year that called for enacting voting by mail uniformly across all countries starting with the 2020 elections. A measure that will launch an all-mail voting system pilot program on Kauai in 2020 passed, however.
Most of the voters in the 2016 general election — 53 percent — cast their ballots by mail or in early walk-in polling places. The rest voted at their neighborhood polling places, according to data from the Office of Elections.
The office expects a 6 to 8 percent increase in the turnout at polling places this year because the Legislature in 2014 passed a law that allows same-day voter registration beginning this year.
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