Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Pulling off an election takes a lot of volunteers, and it takes some love — “love for every member society.”

A first-of-its-kind study by a University of Montana faculty member recently investigated the motivations of people who serve on the frontlines of democracy and found public service is a top reason poll workers sign up for the job.

Money is a motivator, too.

Published in the current issue of the Public Administration Quarterly, the study was conducted by UM faculty member Christina Barsky.

“Election officials are raising the alarm: The problem of poll worker recruitment is more than a localized problem — it is a timely concern for democracy,” said the study.

In an interview last week, Barsky said she started working with the Missoula County Elections Office in 2015 and became interested in the public servants who give their time to make democracy work — for low or no pay.

“I think one of the really incredible things about our democratic process in Montana and in the United States is the process is run by our friends and neighbors,” Barsky said.

After the 2020 election in which then-President Donald Trump — also presumed Republican presidential nominee this year — falsely claimed the election was stolen, Barsky said she wondered if people’s motivations had changed based on a different social context.

The question is pressing because most poll workers are older, she said — 53% of election workers were 61 or older in 2016, according to the study, which cites a survey from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Additionally, 65% of election jurisdictions from the same survey said recruitment of poll workers was difficult. Barsky’s study noted they’re also often on the receiving end “of displeasure” from people who might have to wait in line or ran into another snag.

“(But) without poll workers, we don’t have elections, right?” said Barsky, in the UM Department of Public Administration and Policy.

The study, based on data from more than 1,000 poll workers in four Arizona counties, found public service, or “duty as a citizen” and being “the kind of person who contributes my share,” as a top motivator.

Some 91% rated “duty as a citizen” as an important factor in serving as a poll worker — 62% as very important and 29% as somewhat important.

Some 93% rated being “the kind of person who contributes my share” as important — 59% as very important and 34% as somewhat important.

But social engagement is also a motivator, according to survey results.

The survey found 68% rated “I found it exciting” as an important factor, and 72% rated “I like to meet new people” as an important factor.

Barsky said the results show the elections space provides a necessary connection to community, especially for seniors.

“If you’re not going to work day in and day out, or if you’re not going to a religious service, it’s providing that social connection that I think particularly individuals that are retired look for,” Barsky said.

Poll workers also want to earn extra money, according to the results. Some 51% rated compensation as an important factor — 22% as very important and 29% as somewhat important.

That’s one outcome Barsky said is worth highlighting and applies not only in Arizona and Montana but across the country.

“For so long, in thinking through public service and the role that folks in elections play, we sort of pooh-pooh the role that money matters,” Barsky said.

But she said groceries have gone up, gas has gone up, and since most of the poll workers are older, many might be living on fixed incomes. So pay can’t be overlooked as a factor.

“Public service is super important, but this is an opportunity to have a little bit of extra cash,” Barsky said.

She said she doesn’t believe this specific study necessarily uncovers the extent that money plays a role, and there’s likely more to learn, including from the Treasure State.

“Montana has a legacy of public service,” Barsky said. “We have one of the highest rates of volunteerism in the nation. We’re ripe for understanding the differences, the nuances, of why people volunteer or serve in a public role.”

In Missoula, elections administrator Bradley Seaman said the county recruits and trains the largest number of elections judges in the state of Montana, some 450 this spring.

“Nobody does this for the money,” Seaman said.

He said workers are paid minimum wage in Missoula County, although 20% choose to volunteer their time. However, he said he refers to the job as “paid public service.”

“Our community comes together, volunteers to be trained, volunteers to serve on Election Day, and the only way we can get so many people involved is because they care,” Seaman said.

He said an estimated 60-70% return to serve again, and 30-40% are new judges who want to learn about the process.

“It’s that pride in serving your community,” Seaman said.

Workers may earn an extra $100 or $200, and he said some people use it as Christmas shopping money or for extras.

Seaman said he would love to pay people more, but it’s a difficult conversation in a time of tight budgets for the county as a whole and the tax increases citizens are facing.

The survey also asked poll workers if it was more important to ensure everyone who is eligible has the right to vote or to protect the system against fraud.

Results showed 76% said it was more important to protect the right to vote, and 24% said it was more important to protect against fraud.

Barsky said she has asked this question repeatedly. She said she believes people close to the election process believe it’s more important to protect the right to vote because they have familiarity with the system.

“They know how almost impossible it would be to commit voter fraud, and they know the system is set up in a way to ensure almost any malfeasance would be caught,” she said.

A survey in Missoula after the 2020 election found 91% of respondents said they agree or strongly agree their vote counts, but Seaman said the Elections Office also has had “a vocal minority” make allegations of irregularities they couldn’t substantiate.

However, he said the Elections Office has invited skeptics to come and see the process firsthand.

“When you come and you learn and you see this process, you become more confident in the process,” he said.