[Image via EAC]

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s latest “Deep Dive” brief on 2016 election data is out, focusing on election offices’ use of polling places and the need for, and recruitment of, poll workers to assist voters on and before Election Day. From the release:

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) released a brief today that shows a decline in the number of physical polling places across the country, the continued challenges jurisdictions report facing in recruiting poll workers, and age data for poll workers. This is the third in a series of “deep dives” into election administration trends and voting behavior ahead of the 2018 election cycle. The brief analyzes data from the 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), the most comprehensive survey on election administration in the United States identifying national, state and local trends.
“Recruiting, training, managing and retaining poll workers is constantly on the minds of election officials who are always looking for ways to strengthen their processes,” said EAC Director of Research Sean Greene, who leads the EAVS. “Whether an official is seeking to improve poll-worker recruitment, or implementing alternative voting options that could decrease the need for physical polling places, the EAVS data can serve as a resource about how such initiatives have impacted election administration in other states.”  

The findings released in today’s brief include: 

  • During the 2016 elections, local election officials operated 116,990 polling places, including 8,616 early voting locations, across the country. These polling sites were operated by 917,694 poll workers. [This number is missing data from Iowa and other jurisdictions who did not report any polling places.]
  • Nearly 65 percent of jurisdictions reported that it was “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to obtain a sufficient number of poll workers.
  • There has been a continued decrease in physical polling places, which can likely be explained by the expansion of alternative voting options, the increased use of these options by voters, and the corresponding decrease in in-person voters on Election Day.
  • More populous jurisdictions faced greater challenges when recruiting poll workers.
  • Of the age data reported for approximately 53 percent of poll workers who served in 2016, 24 percent of poll workers were 71 or older and another 32 percent were between the ages of 61 and 70.

This brief is jam-packed with more data, but I found two pieces particularly interesting. First, there is the data from Colorado showing that moving from a traditional Election Day voting model to a “ballot delivery” approach cut the number of polling places by more than 75%:

Colorado, which enacted large-scale changes to its election processes in 2013, has contributed to this trend. Under Colorado’s new model, all registered voters are mailed ballots for most elections and “vote centers” have replaced traditional polling places. Unsurprisingly, EAVS data shows a considerable decrease in polling locations utilized in Colorado in recent elections, dropping from 1,237 in 2012 to 301 in 2014 and further to 288 in 2016.

There is also a reminder, despite the frequent focus on larger communities, that many jurisdictions are so small they don’t even need multiple polling places:

44 percent of the 6,060  jurisdictions that responded to this question (outside of [all vote-by-mail states]) reported operating only one polling place in their jurisdiction. Endnote: Wisconsin alone accounted for 63 percent of these jurisdictions with a single polling place, as the state reports EAVS data at a municipal level (whereas most other states do so at the county level).

Poll worker data is particularly interesting because it provides a snapshot of the human factor on the other side of the voting table, illustrating the scale and nature of the effort election offices must put forth to allow voters to cast their ballots. Kudos to my colleagues on the EAC Deep Dive team – my old friend Sean Greene and former student (and friend!) David Kuennen – for a fascinating look at this topic. I’m looking forward to where the next “deep dive” will be … stay tuned!