The head of a new federal voting commission wants corporate America to help with the shortage of Election Day (search) poll workers by giving employees the day off to work at the polls.

DeForest B. Soaries, chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission (search), said the decreasing number of poll workers is an "emerging crisis" that threatens elections more than any technological problem with electronic voting.

"I believe that corporate America has got to support letting people off from their jobs without having to take a sick day or vacation day to help you on Election Day," Soaries told a conference of Virginia state and local election officials.

"I want corporate America to support people working on polls in the exact same way that corporate America supports people working on juries without jeopardizing their jobs," said Soaries, a former New Jersey secretary of state. "The same way they buy into raising money for the United Way, I want them to raise poll workers for you."

Soaries dubbed the effort a "National Poll Worker Initiative" (search). 

In an interview afterward, he said he already had commitments from five companies that he declined to name, and was talking to others.

"The greatest threat to voting in this country has less to do with source code and more to do with finding people who don't mind getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning and getting to the firehouse on time," Soaries told some 400 election officials.

Election officials welcomed the proposal, with several saying it is becoming harder and harder to recruit new poll workers to replace longtime workers who are getting older and feeling less up to the task.

"There's always a shortage," said Barbara Cockrell, assistant secretary of Virginia's elections board. "We're asking people to spend a long day doing something that doesn't really get a lot of thanks and doesn't get much pay."

Virginia alone requires some 10,000 poll workers to work at almost 3,300 polling places, Cockrell said.

The National Poll Worker Initiative is one of three projects Soaries said his commission hoped to get underway before the Nov. 2. election.

He also hopes to distribute a set of best practices culled from election officials nationwide, and develop a "tool kit" to help election workers understand the Help America Vote Act. The law was passed in 2002 as a result of the disputed 2000 presidential election.

Soaries said more far-reaching reforms would take time and money, noting his commission has been underfunded since its creation. It was given $1.2 million this year, and the four commissioners that were supposed to be in place by February 2003 weren't appointed until last December.

The commission's role is to distribute federal money to states and advise them and localities on technology, election standards and other steps to improve voting integrity. It can make recommendations but not issue mandates.

With increasing attention on the security of electronic voting systems, Soaries said he planned to give a speech June 8 in Maryland to recommend whether electronic voting machines should have paper vote records.