Washington, DC is implementing a groundbreaking incentive system for it’s poll workers. The district provided precinct captains with “report cards” that grade them on eight criteria, including opening/closing time, result/paperwork return, and other election day responsibilities.
This innovative model of accountability and motivation was said to have had a big impact in last November’s elections, and may catch on elsewhere in 2012.
District of Columbia offers performance bonus to poll workers
Bonus pay earned through election day performance and additional training
On November 2, 2010, I earned $300 from the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics (DCBOEE).
Just over half my hefty haul — $160 — was my base pay for serving as a precinct captain, the chief Election Day worker for poll sites in D.C. A couple weeks ago, I learned I had earned an additional $140 in performance pay.
Under a new program, D.C. handed out up to $140 in bonuses to precinct captains based on their performance on eight Election Day tasks. Accompanying the bonus was a report card detailing how we did on each task and whether we had earned the bonus: $10 or $20 per task. I was part of 30 percent of captains to earn ’em all (and so could proudly face Doug Chapin at work the next day).
The bonus program was a response to a particularly troubled 2010 primary election in D.C.
The 2010 elections were a bit of an Elections perfect storm here in our nation’s capital — granted, it was a self-imposed perfect storm, the result of the “Omnibus Election Reform Act of 2009.” D.C. introduced two new styles voting machines, a DRE and an optical scan machine. The city also introduced a new electronic pollbooks and offered election-day registration for the first time. And turnout was high due to the hotly contested mayoral race.
Both voters and poll workers had to navigate the primary on a full precinct’s worth of new equipment and procedures.
The primary could have gone smoother, and the DCBOEE took some hits.
“Training wasn’t good enough. Performance wasn’t good enough,” Alysoun McLaughlin, DCBOEE’s public affairs manager, admitted.
In performance reviews after the primary, McLaughlin said it became apparent that many of her captains were not taking full responsibility for their precincts. When voting machines were not opened on time, captains blamed the workers underneath them trained to operate the machines. When special ballots (D.C’s version of a provisional ballot that also includes EDR ballots) weren’t filled out properly, captains blamed their special ballot clerk.
The city needed a way to encourage captains to better manage the full Election Day operation. As McLaughlin put it, a way to tell them “This is your responsibility.”
Tying extra pay to performance was the DCBOEE’s stopgap solution. Not only could performance pay motivate poll workers, but D.C. could tie the bonus to additional training. To be eligible for the bonus, all captains, veteran and rookies alike, first had to attend an eight hour training session in which we received hands-on training on how to operate every new piece of equipment.
Performance Bonus Criteria
- Open Optical Scan by 7:00 am
- Open Touch Screen by 7:00 am
- Meet Special Ballot Standards
- Return of Election Results
- Return of Ballots and Paper Trail
- Other Election Day Supplies
- Other Paperwork Return
- Accurate Ballot Accounting Form
And according to DC’s After Action Report, released earlier this month, the performance pay had a “dramatic effect,” as critical Election Day procedures — such as opening the voting machines on time — saw marked improvements from the Primary.
But is the bonus really to thank?
Steve Mockabee, a political scientist and researcher at the University of Cincinnati who has studied poll worker issues, cautions linking the bonus directly to improvements in performance.
“The challenge,” Mockabee stated, “is that other factors may be at work to explain the improvement. Most notably, [the captains] had extra training.”
Mockabee noted that his research showed that extra money actually ranked fairly low in a survey of the drivers that compel poll workers to complete additional training and return to work future elections. Civic duty and social interaction were cited far more than cold hard cash.
Though he questions whether it is even feasible to empirically study performance pay on poll workers, Mockabee said he would not discount the program. He applauds D.C. for making an effort to target in on specific indictors of performance. “The broader perspective is that any effort to enhance poll worker performance is a good thing,” he said.
Further dampening the shine of the bonus program is the cost. The DCBOEE spent more than $20,000 of its HAVA funds on the 2010 general election bonus program.
But all this is no rain on D.C.’s parade. “We’ll never know if the bonus was the catalyst for the improvement,” McLaughlin said. “But we aren’t second guessing it.”
McLaughlin said at least 15 captains called her office asking how they could improve or receive extra training in the areas in which they failed to attain the bonus. A moral victory, if not a tangible one.
“I think [the bonuses] makes sense,” McLaughlin said. “I’d actually like to spread it around and pay out smaller bonuses to the other positions as well.”
Whether or not the DCBOEE can offer those bonuses again though remains to be seen. The city is facing a $600 million budget deficit and the DCBOEE is being forced to hold one (possibly two) costly special election this year.
And me? McLaughlin knows she’s getting me back, whether I earn performance pay or not. But my bonus did buy about three beers in a Dupont bar, so that was nice.