Report 2008-106 Summary - September 2008

County Poll Workers:

The Office of the Secretary of State Has Developed Statewide Guidelines, but County Training Programs Need Some Improvement


Our review of county elections officials' training of poll workers revealed the following:

  • In 2006 the Office of the Secretary of State (office) adopted poll worker training guidelines (training guidelines), as required by law.
  • The law does not require the training guidelines to be updated and the office has not done so since issuing the training guidelines in 2006.
  • The office's senior management asserts that although the law does not direct the office to monitor counties' compliance with the training guidelines, the office does conduct some observations of counties' elections and shares the results of its findings with the counties it observes.
  • The eight counties we reviewed substantially complied with the content of the training guidelines when training their inspectors, but some counties appeared to only partially train poll workers in certain areas.
  • Some counties employed noteworthy practices targeted toward providing poll workers with added opportunities to practice what they have learned.
  • Not all counties required inspectors to attend training or were able to demonstrate they trained all inspectors prior to the February 2008 election. None of the counties could clearly demonstrate how the information collected from the February 2008 election was summarized and used to update their training for the June 2008 election.
  • None of the counties could clearly demonstrate how the information collected from the February 2008 election was summarized and used to update their training for the June 2008 election.
  • Many of the counties were not able to provide reliable data that described how they resolved voter and poll worker complaints.


To be able to cast a ballot in an election in the State of California (State), eligible individuals must register to vote. In doing so, they can declare an affiliation with one of six political parties certified by the Office of the Secretary of State (office), thus becoming able to participate in that party's nomination process, or they can register without a political party affiliation.

The California Elections Code (Elections Code) makes county elections officials responsible for training poll workers. State law also requires the office to administer the provisions of the Elections Code and to ensure that elections are conducted efficiently and that state election laws are followed. In 2003, the State Legislature (Legislature) enacted a law that required the office to establish a task force to recommend uniform guidelines for training poll workers. The guidelines were to include certain topics, such as voters' rights and polling place operations. In 2006, as required by state law, the office published the Poll Worker Training Guidelines 2006 (training guidelines), which reflects the work of the task force. The document was not intended to take the place of training materials or resources for poll workers; rather, it was to establish a minimum set of requirements that training sessions and materials developed by the counties must meet and to set a standard against which county programs for poll workers should be measured.

The law does not require the training guidelines to be updated, and the office has not done so since issuing them in 2006. Nevertheless, senior management at the office have expressed a desire to update the training guidelines and have acknowledged that to do so, the office would need to convene a task force similar to the one used to develop the original training guidelines.

One subject not covered in the training guidelines is the rights of voters who registered to vote without declaring a political party affiliation (decline-to-state voters). The office's senior management stated that in the February 2008 presidential primary election, many decline-to-state voters were confused about which political parties' candidates they could cast ballots for because only two of California's six qualified political parties had authorized this type of voter to cast ballots in their primaries. In addition, some news agencies reported that poll workers gave unclear instructions to decline-to-state voters and that poll workers were unsure as to how much information they could volunteer to these voters. The office has taken steps to eliminate voter and poll worker confusion, such as emphasizing the rights of decline-to-state voters in its June 2008 Voter Information Guide. Currently, there are two bills before the Legislature that would require poll workers to inform decline-to-state voters that they may request a ballot for a political party that has adopted a party rule allowing these voters to vote that party's ballot.

In addition to its guidelines, the office has communicated training information through periodic memorandums (memos) to county elections officials, as well as through trainings and informational seminars conducted by the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO), an association of county elections officials. The office uses the memos as a means of communicating with county elections officials about election-related topics. Of the more than 650 memos the office issued between April 2006 and April 2008, we found that 11 seemed to have implications for poll worker training.

Although not required to do so, the office performs limited monitoring of the poll worker training conducted by counties. The office's senior management noted that although the law establishes the secretary of state as the chief elections officer it does not direct the office to track whether counties conform to the office's guidelines when training poll workers or to develop regulations or policies surrounding poll worker training. However, the office does perform some monitoring of counties' administration of elections through its Election Day Observation Program (observation program). Created in 2003, the observation program began as a poll-monitoring program that focused on preventing issues such as long lines at polling places and the intimidation of voters. Subsequent election reviews have focused on how well counties were complying with federal election requirements. During the February 2008 primary election, the office staff visited 31 counties and afterward shared their observations with each county to help them identify ways to strengthen their respective poll worker training. The office performed a similar review in June 2008, and the office's senior management stated that they plan to perform a review in November 2008 but are uncertain about the 2010 election cycle. According to the deputy director of operations, whether the observation program will continue in 2010 is dependent upon available resources and whether changes in the law require changes in polling place operations that dictate a need to observe how the counties are implementing those changes.

Many of the eight counties we reviewed look to other sources of information, rather than the office when updating their training programs. Three of the eight counties we visited told us they do not believe they are required to follow the training guidelines. One county told us that it seldom reviews the training guidelines for current elections because the guidelines have not been updated. Seven of the eight mentioned using the CACEO or the United States Election Assistance Commission (commission) for information to update their poll worker training programs. The Election Administration Research Center (center) at the University of California, Berkeley, is another organization that provides tools to counties for improving their training programs. The center released two reports summarizing its findings from surveys of poll workers that the center administered during the 2006 election cycle.

The eight counties we reviewed substantially complied with the content of the office's training guidelines when training poll workers, which consist of the inspectors who supervise polling places and the clerks who staff them. However, some counties appeared to only partially train poll workers in certain areas, such as voters' rights to report illegal or fraudulent activity, sensitivity to multiple cultures, and the operation of voting machines. Additionally, some counties did not use suggested training methods, such as role-playing for processing voters' ballots and hands-on training for teaching workers to operate voting machines. However, after encountering problems in the February 2008 primary election with ensuring the rights of decline-to-state voters, the eight counties whose training we observed all discussed the voting options available to these voters prior to the June 2008 election.

In our review of eight counties, we observed some noteworthy training practices. Most of these practices seemed targeted toward providing poll workers with additional opportunities to practice what they have learned while also being sensitive to their time commitments. For example, we found that some counties offered training at various times and locations and tailored the content to the experience level of the attendees to promote greater training attendance. Others offered online training or optional workshops with opportunities for more hands-on training just prior to the election.

Not all of the counties we reviewed required inspectors to attend training prior to working elections or were able to provide data demonstrating that they trained all inspectors prior to the February 2008 election. Specifically, many counties had difficulty providing us complete and accurate lists of inspectors that received training. As a result, many counties in our sample cannot be certain that all these workers have the knowledge to efficiently administer elections.

The elections officials from the eight counties we visited told us they use a variety of sources for collecting information to identify needed improvements in their poll worker training programs. These sources included post-training feedback from poll workers, comments from instructors, postelection debriefing reports, analyses of voter complaints, and reviews of questions from poll workers on election day. Seven of the counties were able to provide at least some documentation of the information they collected. However, none could clearly demonstrate how the information collected from the February 2008 election was summarized and used to make changes in their training programs for the June 2008 election. At most, counties were able to provide postelection evaluation reports that described what needed to be changed in their training programs for poll workers; however, these reports did not link their conclusions from the data collected to the proposed changes to be made. As a result, we could not determine whether the counties in our sample effectively used the information they collected to improve their poll worker training.

Under state law, voters have the right to ask poll workers and elections officials questions and register complaints about election procedures and to receive an answer or be directed to an appropriate elections official for an answer. Although most of the counties we reviewed discussed procedures for handling voter complaints in their poll worker training, the emphasis the counties placed on handling complaints varied. For example, Alameda County did not specifically discuss handling complaints; instead it used its training guide to inform poll workers that voters can call the office or county elections officials with complaints. In contrast, Orange County dedicated training time to discussing voters' rights to complain about election issues and developed referral cards with the county's voter hotline telephone number for poll workers to hand out to voters who complained at the polls. Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Clara counties developed similar referral cards. Although all eight counties told us they receive complaint calls from voters or poll workers on election day, most counties we visited were unable to provide information on how they resolved voter or poll worker complaints.

Finally, to determine the number of poll workers to assign to each polling place, most of the county elections officials we reviewed used general poll worker recruitment goals, such as ensuring that each polling place has at least one inspector and three to four clerks. The counties we visited cited various factors when considering how many poll workers to recruit for election day, such as projected voter turnout, expected poll worker absenteeism, past experience with elections, and the need for multilingual poll workers. Many of the counties reported challenges in recruiting an adequate number of poll workers, and they stated that they relied on practices such as expanding recruiting at schools and hiring a reserve of workers to make up for absenteeism among polling place workers on election day.


The Legislature should consider amending the Elections Code to explicitly direct the office to periodically update its poll worker training guidelines and to monitor county adherence to these standards. In the interim, the office should continue with its plans to update its training guidelines and incorporate new guidance on the proper handling of decline-to-state voters. Finally, to the extent feasible, the office should continue its efforts to monitor county adherence to its guidelines through its observation program.

To ensure that poll worker training programs conform with the office's guidelines, county elections officials should review the content of their programs, ensuring their training fully covers topics such as voter complaint procedures, preventing voter intimidation, and issues pertaining to a culturally diverse electorate.

To improve poll workers' willingness to attend training and their ability to retain the lessons learned, county elections officials should consider implementing the following practices:

  • Maximize the number of training sessions scheduled for poll workers while also offering the training at multiple locations with different start times to better accommodate poll workers' other time commitments. Also, providing condensed training tailored to experienced poll workers may entice greater attendance, while more extensive training can be reserved for new poll workers.
  • Offer poll workers an opportunity to reinforce what they learned in class through the use of online supplemental training material. Such an online program might include practice quizzes on election-day procedures, examples of the election materials to be used, and reference materials provided at training. County elections officials might also consider providing podcasts that emphasize critical aspects of poll worker training.
  • Provide optional workshops giving poll workers additional opportunities to practice what they learned and to get hands-on experience in the use of election-day supplies and voting equipment. County elections officials might consider providing these workshops 0n the days immediately before an election to maximize poll worker confidence and retention of information.

To better ensure that county elections officials provide knowledgeable inspectors to serve voters, counties should take steps to ensure that all inspectors receive training. Steps that counties might take to achieve this goal include:

  • Compiling accurate lists of inspectors who have attended training while informing inspectors who did not go through training that they cannot serve as inspectors.
  • Recruiting reserve poll workers who have gone through inspector training to be deployed, as necessary, to polling places where the assigned inspectors did not receive the required training.

To better ensure that training programs for poll workers are effectively evaluated and needed improvements identified, county elections officials should consider taking steps to track voter complaints and poll worker questions that are received during an election, evaluate whether such comments suggest ways to improve their training programs, and implement those improvements.


Overall, the office concurs with our recommendations as they relate to its operations. However, the eight counties we reviewed for the audit vary in their agreement with our findings and recommendations. The office's and counties' responses begin on page 53.