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Elections are coming up, and the Kansas City metro needs a lot more poll workers

People are seen in an election polling location. A voting booth with the phrase "I voted" sits in the foreground.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Election judges assist voters inside Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center. Election official around the Kansas City metro are looking for more political balance in their election workers and younger election workers.

Election officials say poll workers are usually older, and they are looking for younger people to step up. And depending on the location, some election boards are in desperate need of more Republicans or Democrats.

Election officials around the Kansas City metro are in need of workers for the upcoming primary on August 2 -- which will see competitive party contests for U.S. Senate in Missouri, and a proposed amendment in Kansas that would eliminate the constitutional right to abortion.

Sara Zorich, the Democratic director of the Jackson County Board of Elections, says COVID knocked out a lot of their workers over the past two years. Although they have enough on hand for this election day, election boards rely on backup and standby workers in case people cancel at the last minute or get sick.

“We always need volume,” she says.

Plus, Jackson County recently combined polling locations, which means they need more people working at each site to deal with the increase in voters.

Depending on their position, election workers can earn between $100 and $200 for the day. But the money doesn’t seem enough to entice workers.

“We’ve reached out to high schools. We’ve reached out to colleges,” says Tiffany Ellison, the Democratic director of elections in Clay County. “There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest.”

Ellison says they’ve tried to entice local businesses to offer days off for workers, but daycare remains a problem.

“We’re not having a lot of great success,” Kieffer says. “It seems like we rely heavily on our older citizens. They seem to be a little more civic conscious”

All the election officials KCUR contacted for this story say they need judges of any stripe, but they’re especially concerned about what will happen when older workers retire if there’s few people to fill their place.

A woman stands between voting machines helping voters make their selections in Johnson County, Kansas.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
An election worker at Indian Creek Technology Center in Overland Park gives instruction to a voter while others make their selections.

“For decades and decades, that’s how it’s always happened,” says Shawn Kieffer with the Kansas City Board of Elections. “We need the younger generation to step up and work the polls.”

Election officials say they sometimes get students to show up once, but rarely see them again.

Almost as difficult as finding young poll workers is finding the right balance of Republicans and Democrats. Each polling location is required by state statute to have an equal number of judges from each party.

Kieffer says because Kansas City leans Democratic, they always have an abundance of Democrat judges for poll-watching duties, while Republicans are harder to find.

Jackson County has a similar problem, but the roles are somewhat reversed.

Tammy Brown, the Republican director at the Jackson County Election Board, says that some cities in eastern Jackson County are heavily Democratic — such as Independence, Raytown and Grandview -- while others — like Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs -- are heavily Republican.

Brown says they are able to maintain a good balance by swapping judges between the different municipalities to make things work out — they even loan out Republican judges to Kansas City.

House Bill 1878, theexpansive elections law signed by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on June 29, will make it easier for election jurisdictions to swap workers in order to maintain a political balance at the polls. But those changes don’t take effect until after the August primary.

“As long as we can get our judges to not demand to stay in their own city and will travel for us, then we do OK,” Brown says.

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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