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Election volunteers find the work rewarding, with a new appreciation for the process

Signs posted outside a polling site in Roanoke during the June 18 primary
Jeff Bossert
Radio IQ
Signs posted outside a polling site in Roanoke during the June 18 primary

For many years, volunteering for an election was largely about a single day, helping voters make sure they’re registered, get them their ballot, and quickly make it through their polling place.

But early voting has meant a greater commitment, one that some in the Roanoke area say has brought them new appreciation for the process.

Roslen-Mitchell Hughes says everyone who is able to should exercise their civic duty.

“(It’s) just my personal opinion, I feel like you shouldn’t say anything if you don’t make your voice heard,” she explained. "People say ‘one person is not going to make a difference’ – you don’t know that. If everybody feels like that, then that one person is a whole lot of people, and I think they should make a difference.”

Mitchell-Hughes has been an elections officer in Roanoke for more than a decade, calling it a rewarding process that works well with her full-time job as a tax preparer. Voting also marks a milestone for some. Staff at her office will ring a bell for those casting a ballot for the first time.

“So that really makes them feel special,” Mitchell-Hughes said. “Now, a lot of the kids are a little embarrassed, but the parents are elated.”

Her supervisor is Roanoke Voter Registrar Andrew Cochran. He says Officers of Election and Poll Workers have not been hard to come by, even with Virginia’s 45-day early voting period, one that’s longer than any other state.

“We generally don’t have to go out and shake the trees to find people,” he said. “So our officers that we do have are committed, and many are long-term, and are energized about the work that they do.”

Cochran says his office typically does not recruit help for primaries, but there has been more training this year, with a presidential contest this fall. That process takes about 10 days.

Election law books in Roanoke Registrar Andrew Cochran's office
Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ
Election law books in Roanoke Registrar Andrew Cochran's office

The 600-page Virginia Election Laws book covers areas like those scanners we put our ballots in, checking voters for a proper ID, and to remind those electioneering to stay 40 feet from the door of a polling place.

Cochran says many first-time poll workers are surprised to learn the extensive planning that goes into something that typically takes mere minutes for the voter.

“Almost everybody comes on board with a preconceived notion of what it is, and they find out that it’s very different, it’s much more detailed," he explains. "There are many more controls than they could have imagined."

Another part of the job is telling voters to trust the process, and the outcome of elections. Traci Clark is the Registrar for Botetourt County and also serves as President of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia.

“It’s difficult when it feels like that you constantly have people questioning your integrity, and they don’t know you at all - it’s very frustrating,” she said. “We’ve kind of felt like- just now, it’s one of those things that comes with the job. You know, in 2016, we didn’t have that problem.”

Clark talks all the time with fellow registrars, sometimes about sharing documents, and often, just serving as a sounding board. She said they're having a hard time finding young help these days. But Clark knows others locally who have been doing this nearly as long as she’s been alive.

“(It’s a) presidential year, people are excited – and so it was a little easier actually in those years to be able to get more people,” Clark said. “It just depends what the political climate is at time when you’re trying to recruit and get everybody assigned.”

Election help is paid. Cochrane’s office is paying around $300 per election.
Clark says registrars do poll other localities to gauge what they’re paying, and while officers appreciate a small raise, it’s never been the deciding factor for help in Botetourt County, which offers about $200 to $250 per election.

Her next challenge - helping her colleagues find more of that help statewide. The Voter Registrars Association of Virginia has a conference later this summer to help some of those full-timers get through their first presidential election.

For those interested in serving as a poll worker, The Virginia Department of Elections provides an application process to work in the precinct of your choice.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.