A shortage of at least 500,000 poll workers nationwide means many voters could face long lines, cranky volunteers, polling places that don't open or close on schedule and the chance that results won't be known until long after the polls are closed.
Roughly 1.4 million people have been trained to serve as poll workers on Tuesday, about the same as four years ago, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (search). But nearly 2 million will be needed to deal with expected heavy turnout, huge numbers of first-time voters and unfamiliar touch-screen machines in hundreds of counties.
Desperate for workers, the Election Assistance Commission urged businesses and federal agencies to give volunteers the day off with pay to staff the polls. But as the last deadline for training new workers passed Friday, critical shortages remained in many states.
"If the criminal justice system didn't have access to jurors, the criminal justice system wouldn't exist. Poll workers are just as important as jurors," said DeForest Soaries Jr., chairman of the EAC and former New Jersey secretary of state.
The shortage is acute in urban areas where workers should be able to speak multiple languages. Soaries is most worried about New York City, Washington, St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Election officials also are struggling to motivate volunteers: For every three poll workers trained, only two show up on election day.
And in Los Angeles County, Registrar Connie McCormack estimates that one-third of the county's past volunteers don't return for a second election. In March 2002, 125 precincts opened late because no workers were available. The county, the nation's largest, tapped business owners, county workers, leaders of ethnic groups and even high schoolers to find the 25,000 poll workers it will need Tuesday.
This summer, the EAC launched a recruiting drive among federal workers, but of the 100,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture employees who received an e-mail Oct. 21 asking them to volunteer, only 14 signed up.
A looming threat for future elections, officials say, is that the most reliable volunteers are retirees. The EAC estimates that the average poll worker is 72 years old.
"I don't want to sound crass, but poll workers are passing on," said Michael Sciortino, president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials and director of the Mahoning County Board of Elections.
"Where's the next generation of poll workers?" asked Kay J. Maxwell, president of the U.S. League of Women Voters. "We need passion about this whole process and civic participation."
Florida, Arizona, Nevada and other Sunshine Belt states with low costs of living and plentiful housing have an ample supply of retirees. But their exodus drained the Eastern seaboard and upper Midwest of knowledgeable volunteers.
Election officials in Indiana wooed union members and unemployed factory workers with stipends of $75 for rank-and-file poll workers and $150 for precinct leaders. Kentucky officials asked sheriffs and judges to enlist volunteers and even recruited at summer festivals. A new Ohio law gives state and local government employees a paid day off to work the polls.
New York City pays among the best — up to $300 for a day's work at the polls. But the shift typically lasts from 5 a.m. until the polls close and votes are counted.
In California's San Luis Obispo County, Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald was able to get a raise for poll workers — to $97, plus $10 for attending a three-hour training course. She also created split shifts and flex time — a nod to stay-at-home parents who told her they could volunteer only during school hours.