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Serving as a poll worker is one of the best ways you can give back to your community, but it can be difficult work. You have to work fourteen hours or more, manage lots of paperwork, and you’re often working alongside people you don’t know. The pay is nice but usually modest.
With its Adopt-a-Precinct program, Orange County, Florida tries to make participating a little more attractive by transforming Election Day into a fundraising and team building opportunity for community groups. In return, the county benefits from the high number of organized, tech-savvy election workers who volunteer through the program.
“It’s a win-win for everyone involved,” says Timothy Frazier, who works as Elections Coordinator for the Orange County Supervisor of Elections and manages the program.
With Orlando as its county seat, Orange County is one of the most populous counties in Florida and home to nearly 800,000 registered voters. Bill Cowles has played a role in administering elections here since 1989 and has served as Supervisor of Elections since 1996.
The roots of the Adopt-a-Precinct program run almost as deep.
Inspired by the Adopt-a-Highway initiatives that emerged to help communities share the burden of roadside litter, Bill created the Adopt-a-Precinct program in 1998 to tackle challenges of poll worker recruitment. Corporate America was originally the program’s target audience, but over the years, there’s been much more involvement by civic organizations and community groups, as Timothy explains.
“We found that not only did local businesses want to participate -- how the program was originally designed -- but some of our precincts (especially churches) wanted to adopt themselves, which led us to also bring on civic clubs, fraternities and sororities, and school booster clubs.”
The basics of the program are simple.
A community group agrees to adopt a precinct and designates a staff member to serve as Coordinator. The Coordinator is then responsible for finding ten volunteers in their organization to staff the polls and works with a county Precinct Service Clerk to arrange training for the group. Finally, the group works on Election Day, and instead of paying each worker separately, the Supervisor of Elections office cuts a single check for the whole group.
When all’s said and done, the Adopt-a-Precinct program brings substantial benefits for the election office as well as for the adopting group. Let’s start by looking at how it helps the election officials.
Firstly, the partnerships help solve problems of recruitment, as each adoption brings ten poll workers who, in effect, recruit themselves.
“With the current number of precincts adopted,” Timothy explains, “there are over 800 poll workers and back-ups who we do not have to recruit.”
That’s a big number, and Timothy says that the numbers are even higher during presidential elections. For instance, for the 2016 General Election, community groups adopted 110 precincts, or about 44% of the county’s total. These adoptions amounted to 1,100 poll workers who didn’t need to be recruited.
In addition, the groups who volunteer bring a major strength that distinguishes them from ordinary poll workers: they know each other. It’s a small detail that has a big impact.
“Each Adopt-a-Precinct Coordinator knows their group,” observes Timothy. “They already know the leader and those who do best by following. They also know those who have technical skills and those who might do better in less technical roles.”
As a result, these groups bring a degree of coordination and skill that would be hard to find otherwise. The adopting teams tend to be a bit younger than poll workers at large, too.
As far as the participating groups are concerned, the most obvious benefits are to serve their community and earn money. According to Timothy, the two things often go hand in hand.
“We promote the program as a fundraiser based on civic engagement, while giving back to the community,” he says. “We currently have many 501(c)(3) organizations who use the earnings from our Adopt-a-Precinct program in their general budget. In fact, most groups end up redistributing their earnings back into the community through scholarships, social programs, school programs, or community outreach.”
Although many groups have adopted precincts over the years, there’s one group in Orange County that stands out for its involvement: the local chapter of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
Instead of just one precinct, the Sigmas adopt six, and in 2016, they raised over $22,000 during the three countywide elections. The best part? “This money was redirected back into the community through scholarships to college-bound youth,” says Timothy.
Adopting the program
Over the years, Orange County’s Adopt-a-Precinct program has been so successful that it’s spread throughout the Sunshine State, inspiring 22 other Florida counties to create their own iterations.
Of course, there’s no reason that Florida should get to have all the fun. Any election office can start a precinct adoption program and enjoy the same benefits that have come to Orange County. For those considering it, Timothy has some pointers.
First, he encourages you to review your state’s laws and procedures around polling place staffing, emphasizing, “It is imperative these be followed to maintain the integrity of the election process.”
What are the party requirements, language requirements, and registration requirements for poll workers? Your program will need to accommodate them.
Second, he suggests that a good way to get started with a new Adopt-a-Precinct program is to approach your current polling locations and ask if they’d like to be involved. “Churches, in particular,” he observes, “are always looking for fundraisers, and this is a perfect opportunity for them and for you to introduce the program to your community. They can earn more money in one day than they would holding countless bake sales, car washes, etc.”
This year, Orange County’s program is marking twenty years of successfully recruiting dedicated, civically minded teams to work the polls while also supporting the local community. As he looks forward to the second half of 2018, Timothy hopes to deepen the program’s impact, with a goal to increase the number of adopted precincts by 10% for the August primary and by another 5% for November.
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