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As Aug. 8 Ohio special election approaches, Hamilton County needs hundreds more poll workers

A poll worker cleans a voting station after a voter left the Fairfield Greens South Trace Golf Course on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Cincinnati.
Aaron Doster
A poll worker cleans a voting station after a voter left the Fairfield Greens South Trace Golf Course on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Cincinnati.

Less than four weeks out from the state's special August election, Hamilton County has fewer than half of the poll workers it needs to pull off Election Day.

Hamilton County Director of Elections Sherry Poland said that the county has just half of the approximately 2,400 poll workers it needs to fully staff all voting locations by August 8. As of July 14, Democrats lead Republicans in worker registration, but the Board of Elections is committed to achieving a balanced poll worker population within the next four weeks, Poland said.

In early August, voters will head to the polls to vote on one ballot issue: if the state should raise the bar for getting a measure on the ballot by changing the threshold for amending the state constitution from a 50% plus one majority to a 60% supermajority.

Activists, lawmakers and Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose have all acknowledged that Issue 1 seeks to make it more difficult to modify the state constitution on issues like abortion, where supporters have already filed signatures to get an amendment before voters in November.

RELATED: Abortion rights supporters file signatures to get amendment to Ohio voters in November

The measure would also raise the bar to pass future contentious ballot measures on the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, drawing district lines, gun control and more.

'Come help administer democracy'

Ahead of the election, officials are scrambling to bring voters — and poll workers — to the ballot boxes. On July 10, LaRose's Secretary of State website featured a homepage banner reminding visitors to "Mark Your Calendars!" for the election. Some visitors were greeted with a popup window sporting the Ohio Flag and asking visitors to "SIGN UP TO BE A POLL WORKER!"

"Defend democracy, and help make this election successful!" the pop-up window read.

Ohio is running the special election on crunch time. House Bill 458, a state law banning most August special elections, took effect with Republican support in April. In May, the state's Republican-controlled legislature approved the August special election to amend the constitution. That left less than three months for boards of elections to prepare for the issue to go before voters.

Poland said the truncated timeline has seen election officials "giving up their summers to work long days and long hours" as the county tries to fill hundreds of outstanding poll worker openings. In a conversation with WVXU, she encouraged all to apply.

"We're putting the call out, a call to action: come help administer democracy," Poland said. "In these times, at polling places, Democrats and Republicans come together and work together to administer a free and fair election."

Poland added that the elections present an opportunity for first-time poll workers to learn the ropes in an off-year election. "For those that have never worked the polls before," she said, "the turnout isn't expected to be as high as what we see next year in a presidential [election]."

LISTEN: Ohio voters will decide Issue 1 in August. Here's what a supporter and opponent have to say about it

Despite public attention toward the ballot initiative, state and county officials estimate anywhere from 30% to single-digit turnout come August, rates lower than typical off-year statewide elections.

"So it'd be a great, great first election [to work]," Poland said.

What it’s like to be a poll worker

On Election Day, poll workers arrive at voting locations across Hamilton County at 5:30 a.m. to prepare for opening at 6:30 a.m. After a day of verifying IDs, distributing ballots, and dispensing instructions, poll workers closeup shop at 8:30 p.m. They are paid $181.50 for the day. "I do admit it is a long day," Poland said.

Poland added that the board's poll worker recruitment efforts for the special election come amidst mounting difficulties for election officials.

"2020 was an incredibly challenging year for election officials. 2022 was challenging. And now, 2023 is also becoming very, very challenging," she said.

Since 2020, those challenges have included growing calls to scrutinize ballots and voter registration by conservative activists. Leading up to the November 2022 statewide election, LaRose formed an election integrity unit under the office of the Secretary of State, citing that "we need to show Ohioans that we take this kind of crime seriously when it occurs," while also noting that voter fraud in Ohio is "exceedingly rare."

RELATED: How mail-in voting works in Ohio: A step-by-step guide

Twelve days later, LaRose's office referred 75 additional instances of alleged voter fraud in the 2020 general elections to the Attorney General and county prosecutors. In 2020, 5.9 million votes were cast in Ohio.

Poland emphasized that poll workers help ensure a fair and smooth voting process. "Elections in Hamilton County and the state of Ohio are safe and secure," she said, adding that all elections are administered by bipartisan teams.

"We all took an oath. And we have a job to do," she said.

Updated: July 14, 2023 at 2:26 PM EDT
Frank Zhou is WVXU's news intern. He is the founding host and co-producer of Newstalk, The Harvard Crimson's flagship news podcast, which publishes weekly and streams in 40+ American states and 60+ countries. His stories have aired on WVXU, Greater Cincinnati's NPR station.