A new draft?

Published: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 10:53 p.m.

We're running out of troops on the front lines. Is it time to bring back the draft?

No, not for the military. We're talking about a draft to fill vacancies in democracy's most fundamental mission: the conduct of elections.

At a time when elections are growing increasingly more complicated and voting machines more high-tech, elections supervisors around the country are experiencing more difficulty finding, training and retaining qualified poll workers.

One problem is that the average age of poll workers is now 72.

"We are now facing a small crisis. Most of the poll workers are older people, and they're dying off," Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of American Electorate, told The New York Times this week.

So Jennifer L. Brunner, Ohio's secretary of state, has proposed a novel concept: Why not conscript citizens to serve as mandatory poll workers, just as they are called upon to perform jury duty? One county in Nebraska, Douglas County, has been conscripting poll workers for two decades.

The problem with forcing unwilling participants into the job has to do with both the increased complexity and the heightened partisanship surrounding elections. "It's almost become a specialized job," Dan Seligson, editor of the election reform Web site www.electionline.org, told the Times. "In a perfect world, you would have the same group of young people come in, do it for five years, and then bring their friends to do it for five years."

Likening poll work to jury duty may sound good at first blush but election results are these days likely to be challenged in court at the first sign of a problem. Putting unwilling conscripts in charge won't help reduce litigation or increase public confidence in the process.

Here's a novel idea. If elections are indeed becoming more technical and more complex, and if poll workers do indeed require more specialized training, perhaps those workers should be offered compensation that is more in line with the duties and expectations of the job. Surely, the proper conduct of democracy's most basic function is worth the extra money.

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