Friday, February 15, 2013

Election News, At a Minimum

President Obama made big election news Tuesday night during his State of the Union speech.

Oh, yeah, he mentioned something about a bipartisan commission related to the voter experience, but that wasn't the election news of the night.

He proposed raising the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.

If you've followed this blog, you know the blog isn't political.  My reaction to the minimum wage issue is not intended to provoke debates on federal vs. state sovereignty or whether we need a minimum wage at all.

The minimum wage statement was impactful to us in elections because our elections ride the backs of persons who make less than that $9 rate.

I'm not just talking about election workers, who at $110 for a 14-hour day would need to be raised $16 for the day ($25 in presidential elections) just to be at this new minimum wage.  We already pay workers just $15 for three-hours of training, so I'm not sure that minimum wage laws actually apply to election workers.  Our election workers haven't had a raise in seven years so we'll be pushing for it, regardless.

But in an office where we have the same number of full-time staff that was here more than 20 years ago--despite more than twice as many voters and precincts, as well a compendium of new laws, technology, and increased expectations--the dirty secret of elections in Johnson County, and elsewhere, is that much of the heavy lifting is done by people who can make more doing just about anything else.

Our top temporaries--those who process registrations in busy times, process advance voting applications, check signatures on the applications, check in and scan mail ballots, mail out the thousands of ballots we have, and check and program our voting machines--typically make $8.75 an hour.

Generally, they are election workers who have signed up for more duty in our office.  In the busiest of times, just before the presidential election for instance, we have to bring in additional temporary-agency employees who are less skilled than our workers and are paid at least $3 more per hour.

On one hand, election administration creates situations where, instead of five temporary employees for 10 hours, we need 10 for five hours--to test and proof the ballot layout on our voting machines, for instance.

But the temporaries often are plugged in to avoid the reality that we are understaffed. 

And, our temporary employees care.  They are uber-devoted.  They inspire us all.  Often on the front lines,they surprise me at what they put up with for $8.75 an hour.

Freedom isn't free, but in the elections world, it's nearly free, particularly when considering the small speck elections comprise out of a county's overall budget and the very fact that if there were no elections, there wouldn't be a county government in the first place. 

Elections are expensive, but that's a result of the number of people we serve more than anything.  Events for 400,000 people cost more than events for 40.

The sad thing is that if the minimum wage increase occurs, the financial impact to our county in a presidential year could approach $100,000 from the increase alone.  Missing the forest for the trees, we will find ourselves defending if we really need this many people (yes, by the way) instead of the obvious question--we run our democratic process with people paid minimum wage?