Tech-savvy recruits have emerged as a prized catch for state and local election officials looking to staff polling stations and build technology-support teams during the monthslong lead-up to Tuesday’s general election.
Most poll workers are trained to deal with low-tech issues, such as paper jams or rebooting computers. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted many states to shift more election-system services online, said Maggie Toulouse Oliver, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, a nonpartisan group composed of the secretaries of state in every U.S. state and territory.
The range of services includes online voter registration, absentee ballot applications, polling-place locators and ballot-tracking tools, Ms. Toulouse Oliver, secretary of state of New Mexico, said last week at a video briefing by state election officials. Services vary from state to state, she said.
The shift is increasing the need for experienced information-technology workers to handle more complex tech issues, like network outages or cybersecurity threats.
Some voting places may also need tech support for on-site electronic poll books, which are used instead of large paper binders to check voter identification and precinct assignments, among other functions, the state office trade group’s spokeswoman said in an email.
Melanie Stallings, a senior software engineer at Atlanta-based payments-processing firm Elavon Inc., said she is using her allotted volunteer days to help out at a local polling station. She has yet to be assigned a location or a specific job, she said.
“I’m technically capable and I feel I can help,” Ms. Stallings said. “A glitch can be a serious issue,” she said.
Ms. Stallings volunteered through GaVotingWorks, a nonpartisan grass-roots effort that has helped Atlanta’s state office recruit more than 2,600 election-day workers, including hundreds of IT professionals, said Jennifer Dorian, the group’s co-founder.
Ms. Dorian, a general manager at Turner Classic Movies, has leveraged corporate connections to rally the help of several local businesses. Atlanta-based Home Depot Inc., for instance, has signed up more than 600 tech volunteers among local store workers, along with 9,200 plexiglass dividers for poll station safety measures, the company said.
Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, said many state CIOs provide indirect support for state elections agencies in the form of provisioning IT infrastructure, cybersecurity, scanning networks and other capabilities.
State offices, in turn, are “supporting the local boards of elections directly,” Mr. Robinson said.
Like many states, Connecticut officials are offering local election organizers assistance from cybersecurity teams in the National Guard to assess the safety of online election systems, a state office spokesman said.
Frank LaRose, Ohio’s secretary of state, said the state has ramped up basic cybersecurity training for local-level poll workers, such as detecting and avoiding questionable emails and other online risks.
Top-down support from the state is crucial, as most election-day volunteers tend to be seniors, said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., whose board includes officials from Microsoft Corp. , Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other large tech firms.
According to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan federal policy think tank based in Washington D.C., in the 2018 general elections roughly 60% of poll workers were over the age of 60, and 30% were over 70.
“Many are not digital natives,” Mr. Castro said. “Some may struggle with a learning curve as elections shift from paper-based ballots and poll books to digital ones.”
He said the need for workers with advanced IT skills is likely a sign that election technology is getting too complicated. That could lead to trouble on election day, such as software or hardware failures that staff are unprepared to resolve, or inconsistencies from one location to another, Mr. Castro said.
Write to Angus Loten at [email protected]
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