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‘Neighbors Helping Neighbors:’ Maricopa County Needs Almost 400 Poll Workers Days Before Election

(Photo by Lauren Gilger- KJZZ)
Tonia Tunnell teaches a poll worker training in Phoenix.

Arizonans are heading to the polls this Tuesday, and, at every one of the more than 700 polling places across the county, there will be poll workers setting up at 5:30 in the morning working to make sure everyone is able to vote.

It’s just a few days away, and the Maricopa County recorder is still looking for almost 400 people to work the polls – and many of them need to be bilingual.

According to the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, 380 poll workers are still needed for Tuesday’s election and 263 of those have to be Spanish-speakers. The County is required to have bilingual poll workers in areas with large numbers of Hispanic voters.

That’s because it can be very difficult to find people to do this all-important job, according to Tonia Tunnell, assistant election official with the Maricopa County Elections Department. She is in charge of training for poll workers every election.

“It’s not only a matter of finding people that are willing, but also in the correct area, because we certainly don’t want to take someone from Mesa and have them going over to Surprise,” she said.


“In partisan elections like this, we have to have a mixture of the political parties in the polling place.”

And that’s not easy.

“So, if there is somebody out in East Mesa that is democratic, we’re looking for you!” Tunnell said.

Poll workers essential to smooth elections

This election, the County had to recruit more than 7,000 of what Tunnell calls “paid volunteers” (they make about $120 for their time).

“It is a challenging position and we’re not able to compensate them for what they’re truly worth,” she said.

But, to Tunnell, poll workers are essential.

“It truly, it requires neighbors to help neighbors to ensure that our democratic process continues forward,” she said.

So, they look for them everywhere they can think of. Tunnell said she has poll workers who have been working every election for decades, the county has a program for high school students who can work for the day, they ask voters to check a box when they register to vote to volunteer for the job, they use TV and social media and, sometimes, they have to get creative.

“We try to be clever. I had a picture of Ryan Gosling that said something like … ‘Hey Voter, you know what’s sexy? Being a poll worker!’” said Samantha Pstross, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, a nonpartisan organization that fights for fair elections.

“We need to find a way to get people excited about voting and get people excited about our elections,” she said.

The Arizona Advocacy Network is helping the county find people to staff the polls for Election Day and, they’re training students at Arizona State University on Saturday to volunteer inside and outside the polls, as poll observers.

“This is the foundation of our democracy and we must have capable poll workers there to make sure everyone is able to vote,” Pstross said.

And, this election year, she said the stakes are even higher. “Frankly, the fact that one of the major presidential candidates has said already that they question the integrity of our election system, that makes us nervous,” she said.

So, she said the Advocacy Network wants to make sure that everyone feels welcome – and safe – at the polls.

'It’s a responsibility to vote, it’s a responsibility to volunteer"

For Arjelia “Argie” Gomez, her goal as a worker at the polls will be to make the voting experience rich for everyone who comes.

She has been involved in the elections process since she was a kid. Her mother was an elected Justice of the Peace in Superior, Arizona and she worked her elections for 28 years.

She’s one of the much-needed bilingual, Spanish-speaking poll workers who will staff the election in Maricopa County this year.

“When I heard they needed Spanish-speaking folks I said, ‘Then I need to go do it,’” she said. “[I] just always had learned from my mother that it’s a responsibility to vote, it’s a responsibility to volunteer, to serve in elections.”

Gomez said she’s seen Latino voters feel excluded at the ballot box before and she wants to make sure that doesn’t happen this time around.

“I think that there’s a level of disenfranchisement,” she said. “We have the ability to really treat our voters with some dignity and some respect, no matter where they come from, no matter what ethnicity, what color they are.”

If you’re interested in helping out at the polls on Election Day, you can go to the Maricopa County Recorder’s websiteto find out how.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.