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State expresses concern over volunteer poll workers in Hernando County

BROOKSVILLE — Raising the specter of Florida's role in the tumultuous 2000 presidential election, Florida's Secretary of State Kurt Browning has warned the Hernando County Commission that counting on volunteers to run the polls in the next election could be "a risky proposition.''

"It is not an overstatement to assert that the success or failure of elections rides on the shoulders of the poll workers who work the polls at each election,'' Browning told Commission Chairman Dave Russell in a letter dated late last week.

Russell didn't appreciate the issue getting aimed back at the commission.

"That letter, as far as I'm concerned, is misdirected,'' Russell said Thursday. "We appropriate the money (for Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams). We don't write her budget.''

The volunteer poll worker issue was raised during recent county budget discussions. At a budget hearing last month, commissioners stuck with their plan to cut $43,000 out of Williams' 2010 budget.

The commission noted then that it was their job to allocate funds to Williams and her job to decide how to spend the money. Williams asked the board what she should cut from her budget to make it work with the reduced funding.

Russell suggested that she might save money if she could find volunteers to work at the polls rather than pay the $100 to $150 per day to an estimated 700 workers for their service in the coming year. He said the county could help by sending out public service notices seeking help.

Williams pointed out that state law requires supervisors to pay their poll workers, a point Browning also makes in his letter. But Russell said there is a method that allows workers to forgo their pay and volunteer instead.

Williams said she was pleased that Browning had weighed in on the issue. She added that while she expects to get a few volunteers, "I certainly do not expect that I will get enough.''

Jason Sager, a local activist who heads up the conservative organization called the Department of Constitutional Protection, volunteered at the budget hearing to help rally volunteers.

To date, two or three people have signed up with her office to work as volunteers, and she said Sager has 20 volunteers who have not yet signed up officially. She said she didn't think people realized the long hours the poll workers put in to do their jobs.

Browning's letter points out that since the 2000 election, the complexity of running elections has "increased dramatically'' and he notes that workers need to be experienced and well-trained.

The demands of the job have caused some paid workers to drop out of the job as the election season progresses, he wrote.

"Due to these increased expectations, I anticipate that volunteer poll workers will have a similar, if not larger, drop-out rate due to the fact they cannot expect any compensation,'' Browning wrote.

He states that he would not encourage Hernando officials to rely on volunteer poll workers.

"We were making a creative recommendation in an effort to save some taxpayer dollars,'' said Russell, who noted that the state has a budget shortfall in the billions. "It seems to me that a little creative thinking in Tallahassee is in order,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Williams said she has implemented the same 10 furlough days that other county workers will take in 2010 and cut her own compensation by 2 percent to help with the budget. But she said she is not sure what else she can do to reach the $43,000.

"I've done what I can do,'' she said, again voicing concern about the volunteer plan.

Russell has placed the letter on Tuesday's commission agenda in case his fellow commissioners want to discuss it further. Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he was collecting some specific budget information and would be examining Williams' expenses to see where else she might make cuts.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

State expresses concern over volunteer poll workers in Hernando County 10/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2009 8:23pm]
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