The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Jordan LaBouff is an associate professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine. Carrie LeVan is the Montgoris assistant professor of government at Colby College. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of their universities. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which supported this research and brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the Bangor Daily News every other week.
Maine elections are efficient, transparent and secure thanks to hundreds of Mainers who serve as election officials. These volunteers and their work are often invisible, unacknowledged and under-appreciated. Who are the people who administer our elections in Maine?
Recent events have made elections even more difficult to run. Many who serve as poll workers are older. And so COVID has been an enormous challenge. Many long-time workers were reluctant to put themselves at serious health risk in 2020, forcing election administrators to seek new workers while grappling with challenging new requirements to safely administer an election during the pandemic.
Further, amidst a swirl of conspiracy theories about electoral malfeasance, local election administration has become increasingly politicized. Increased threats, intimidation and scrutiny of poll workers have led to new legal defense networks and legislation increasing penalties for such activities.
Yet without these poll workers, American democracy would quite literally break down. While most of us pay close attention during presidential and midterm elections, there are more than 500,000 elected officials in the U.S. and a slew of referendums, budget initiatives and more decided via elections. This means tens of thousands of elections must be competently and transparently administered every year. And yet, we understand so little about the people behind these essential functions.
To better understand Maine’s poll workers, we (researchers at the University of Maine and Colby College) partnered with town clerks from Bangor, Fort Kent, Orono and Standish to survey more than a hundred poll workers to learn more about who serves in these roles and why.
We’ve only just received their responses and are beginning to analyze them, but already some interesting trends have emerged.
In these Maine municipalities, the majority of poll workers are older adults. Half of our respondents were 67 or older, and fewer than a quarter were younger than 50. They were also long-time residents: On average they had lived in their town for more than 24 years and only 10 percent had lived in their town for three years or less. They overwhelmingly identified as women (75.2 percent), and were highly educated — nearly half had a post-graduate degree. Approximately one-third were employed full or part time, but the majority were retired (51.2 percent).
They were also relatively politically diverse (64.2 percent Democrat, 17.9 percent Republican, 17.9 percent independent) and politically active in other ways as well — more than 45 percent had contacted an elected official about a policy issue in the last year, and many had contributed money (38.2 percent) or time (18.7 percent) to political candidates, or campaigns. And although they shared many diverse reasons for their choice to volunteer, people overwhelmingly said that their civic duty was their primary motivation to serve (67 percent).
Many of these workers (23 percent) were volunteering for the first time. However, an even larger proportion (31 percent) had volunteered for five or more previous elections and 57 percent said they volunteer every election cycle. More experience serving as a poll worker was associated with stronger beliefs about Maine’s election integrity. The people serving most often were the least likely to believe any election fraud was possible in Maine.
This study of Maine’s poll workers gives us a glimpse at those who serve in this critical role in the administration of our state’s elections. We have learned that those who volunteer are overwhelmingly women, retired, older, highly educated and long-time residents of our communities. These folks serve not just out of a sense of civic duty, but also because they like to connect with the people in their communities and because they are genuinely curious about how elections work. After serving, they are more trusting of election results and of the town clerks who administer them. The success, transparency and accessibility of Maine’s elections rely heavily on these volunteers and the clerks who train and support them each year.