Electoral administration and the problem of poll worker recruitment: Who volunteers, and why?

DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/09520767211021203
Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Electoral administration
and the problem of poll
worker recruitment:
Who volunteers,
and why?
Alistair Clark
Newcastle University, UK
Toby S James
University of East Anglia, UK
Abstract
Elections depend on the thousands of people who give up their time to administer this
crucial public service. They staff polling stations and ensure votes are issued, cast and
counted. Poll workers are effectively ‘stipended volunteers’, receiving some limited
financial compensation, but working for the broader public good. It is important to
understand why people choose to give up their time to provide this fundamental public
service to their fellow citizens. Using original data from a poll worker survey conducted
in the 2015 British general election, this article investigates the motivations and incen-
tives for poll workers volunteering to administer major elections in an important
advanced democracy. Exploratory expectations are set out about the motivations of
poll workers, and the relationship to their socio-economic characteristics, and levels of
social capital and satisfaction with democracy. Contrary to expectations, the findings
note that, earning some extra money is important to many, although motivations are
more broadly structured around solidary, purposive and material motivations. The
article establishes a range of relationships between each set of incentives, and poll
workers’ socio-economic, social capital and satisfaction profiles.
Corresponding author:
Alistair Clark, Newcastle University, UK.
Email: Alistair.clark@ncl.ac.uk
Public Policy and Administration
!The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/09520767211021203
journals.sagepub.com/home/ppa
2023, Vol. 38(2) 188–208
Clark and James 189
Keywords
Administration and democracy, citizen participation, election administration, human
resources management, organizational capacity, stipended volunteers
Introduction
Elections depend on the thousands of people who give up their time to administer
them. They provide a crucial public administrative service, staffing polling stations
and ensuring votes are issued, cast and counted. In the USA in 2016, over 917,000
people volunteered to work in the elections at approximately 185,000 polling
places, while an additional 350,000 volunteered for the 2020 elections (Merivaki,
2020; OSCE/ODIHR, 2016; Wimpy, 2018). Despite providing a fundamental
public service, many countries experience problems recruiting sufficient numbers
of poll workers. Given these are potentially high stress and primarily low pay
temporary positions, this poses an important question for both public administra-
tion and electoral integrity scholars. Why do people choose to give up their time to
provide this vital public service to their fellow citizens and democracy more
generally?
Research into this question is extremely rare. Using data from an original poll
worker survey conducted in the 2015 British general election, this article investi-
gates the motivations and incentives for poll workers to volunteer on polling day.
Discussion proceeds as follows. The first section briefly outlines the general impor-
tance of poll workers in administering electoral democracy. The second section
conceptualises poll workers as ‘stipended volunteers’, and discusses how this might
inform understanding of their motivations. The third section outlines the data used
in this study. The fourth part presents an analysis, highlighting several factors
structuring poll worker motivations to work on polling day. Discussing the signif-
icance of these findings, the paper concludes by making a number of recommen-
dations for analysts and policymakers, while highlighting the comparative utility
of the British case.
The importance of poll workers
The number of elections that are held around the world has increased substantially
in recent decades (Hyde and Marinov, 2012). People are crucial to the effective
administration and implementation of electoral law and policy.
1
Yet, elections are
often undermined by concerns about electoral integrity and malpractice. Many
electoral malpractices can occur in the polling station (Birch, 2011; Lehoucq,
2003). Public administration scholarship has shown that even the best-
designed policies can go wrong at the implementation stage (Sabatier 1986).
Street-level bureaucrats have considerable discretion and opportunity to imple-
ment policies differently (Lipsky 2000). This is also the case in electoral

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