Election riding on thousands of volunteers 

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WANTED: 4,500 volunteers. Long hours. Low pay. No benefits. Apply at the Marion County Clerk’s Office.

City and county officials in both major political parties want voters to flock to the county’s more than 900 precinct ballot locations for the general election in November, but they know the success of the election will ride on whether thousands of poll volunteers show up first.

The question “Can the Marion County Election System be Saved?” was put last week to a panel of experts during the ACLU’s First Wednesday series, which NUVO co-sponsors. And the overwhelming response was “Yes,” but with a caveat.

“It can be saved and improved,” said IUPUI political science professor William Blomquist. “But bodies at the polls is the most important thing. If you don’t have people at the polls, to open polling places … then it won’t matter about other problems you might have, such as broken machines or power outages.” The county has some 917 polling places and each should have five volunteers who work for as many as 13 straight hours for as little as $70 for the day. They don‘t get paid for lunch. They don’t get money for parking.

Strictly speaking, there should be more than 4,500 volunteers for each election, though, Blomquist said, “We have been operating with between 2,000 and 3,000 people at polling places for some time,” under both Republican and Democratic county clerks. After the May primary, Marion County Clerk Beth White, a Democrat who was overseeing her first election, took responsibility when as many as 150 workers failed to be at polling places for at least part of the day, which delayed voting in some locations for as much as six hours and prevented any voting at five precincts. “The entire system will not be saved [by the November election],” said City-County Council member Jackie Nytes, also a panelist. “But we can run a good election on Nov. 6.”

With the change of political parties in the Clerk’s Office at the first of the year, management and recruitment of volunteers changed, which resulted in the county starting virtually from scratch looking for poll workers.

“Volunteers don’t just happen,” said Ellen Saul, president of Maribeth Smith and Associates, which plans major events, including the coordination of volunteers. “It was unrealistic to have thought you could recruit, schedule and train 4,500 volunteers from January to May.”

Noting that the Clerk’s Office handles a variety of other functions, including record keeping for the Circuit Court and handling all monies collected for and distributed by the court, Nytes, a Democrat, said the Clerk’s Office is understaffed for a city of this size. “They didn’t have enough to make it work regardless of how hard they tired.”

By using the database of volunteers from May, the county is reaching out to those workers and expanding its search for more. Employees from the Clerk’s Office also handed out election worker sign-up sheets at the ACLU event. Sign-up sheets are also available online at the County Clerk’s Web site.

Noting that no clerk is likely to commit the same mistake twice, Blomquist said, “The biggest reassurance that NUVO readers can have that November won’t go like May is … May.”

But no one will know for sure until the Wednesday after Election Day.

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