(file pic of poll workers)

Poll workers check in voters during the 2016 General Election at Christ United Methodist Church in Olean. Poll workers, who normally work from before 6 a.m. until after 9 p.m. during general elections, may eventually be able to work shorter shifts in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties due to a new state law, but officials said that hundreds more workers would need to be hired and trained.

OLEAN — A new state law approved this week changed one word in the state’s elections laws, but it could eventually be a way to get more poll workers, local officials said.

Senate Bill S.443A, signed Tuesday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, allows for county boards of elections to split shifts of poll workers — allowing workers to take shifts shorter than the 16-hour shifts for general elections and nine-hour shifts for primary elections, as long as there is at least one poll worker from each major party working at one time.

The change in the law — which changes the word “half” to “split” — won’t mean immediate relief for long poll workers’ days, but local elections officials said it could be “a step maybe in the right direction.”

The law was sponsored by Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean. Young had introduced the bill eight times in the Senate, beginning in 2006 and then in every successive two-year legislative session. Before 2017, the bill was never passed by a committee to the full Senate for approval.

“Our Election Day polls represent the front lines of our democratic process, making it critically important that they are fully staffed with qualified workers who can monitor the process, answer questions, and tabulate results. However, securing the necessary number of inspectors has become increasingly challenging due, in part, to the exceptionally strenuous time frame associated with the job,” said Young in a press release. “Allowing Boards of Election the option of dividing shifts will help attract new volunteers and also ensure that inspectors are engaged, responsive and focused on their duties, rather than being fatigued by a marathon workday.”

The law will take effect March 11, 2018, 180 days after it was signed into law.

Allegany County and Cattaraugus County elections officials were cautious when asked about the change, citing problems

Cattaraugus County Republican Commissioner Mike Brisky said demand for poll workers is high.

“We are required to have at least four people at a poll site,” he said, adding that while the previous law allowed half-day shifts, that hasn’t happened previously. “We have not hired for half-day shifts.”

He said that poll workers shouldn’t get the idea that they’ll have split shifts anytime soon.

“I don’t see a way we can,” he said. “I don’t think it’s feasible at this time.”

If Cattaraugus County were to have two shifts of workers for each of 50 stations in a county-wide election, an additional 200 workers would need to be trained — twice the number currently on the books.

In Allegany County, officials do not expect to offer split shifts to poll workers in the immediate future.

“The problem we have is while it is allowed, we can’t do it because we can’t staff a full election now,” said Allegany County Republican Commissioner Rick Hollis, adding that while the change could mean more poll workers eventually, it won’t happen for any upcoming elections. “It’s like the chicken and the egg — if I can’t get people to sign up, we can’t offer split shifts.”

Eventually, though, that could change.

“It’s a step maybe in the right direction,” said Allegany County Democratic Commissioner Mike McCormick, adding the relief could be beneficial to poll workers. “Nobody’s going to argue it’s a long day.”

The county has been trying to work around the restriction by assigning poll workers to flexible assignments in case some other workers call in sick on Election Day.

“At the presidential election, we had two floating inspectors,” he said, who would be used to fill holes in cases where workers did not show up for shifts. “We also used the floaters in really busy poll sites to give people a break.”

Having no-shows is common, Hollis said.

“It’s hard to get 152 people to show up for work,” he said, referring to the required number of poll workers in a county-wide election — four workers at each of 38 polling places. He added the county recently trained around 160 workers.

With the timeline for the bill to become effective, no changes will be made before the November general election. The earliest a change could be done is for the village elections in March, or for school elections held in May.

Allegany County officials will not be managing any elections in March, but will be assisting Genesee Valley and Wellsville school districts in May, providing voting machines and other resources. In any of those elections, Hollis and McCormick said, it would be up to the government running the elections to decide if they offer split shifts to poll workers.

(Contact reporter-editor Bob Clark at bclark@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @OTHBob)

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