NATIONAL NEWS

Nevada and other swing states need more poll workers. Can lawyers help fill the gap?

Feb 28, 2024, 10:16 PM

FILE - Nevada Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar speaks before Gov. Joe Lombardo signs an election wo...

FILE - Nevada Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar speaks before Gov. Joe Lombardo signs an election worker protection bill into law at the old Assembly Chambers in Carson City, Nev., May 30, 2023. To fight a poll worker shortage that is especially pronounced in rural counties, Aguilar is taking a page from counterparts elsewhere and proposing that the legal community be tapped to help address the problem. (AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes, File)

RENO, Nev. (AP) — With Nevada counties struggling to find poll workers in a pivotal election year, the top election official in the Western swing state is taking a page from his counterparts elsewhere and is asking the legal community to help fill the gap.

Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar wants lawyers who volunteer at the polls to be able to earn continuing education credits to fulfill annual requirements set by the State Bar of Nevada.

It’s a signal of how lawyers are increasingly seen as ideal candidates for stepping in as poll workers, as the positions have grown harder to fill as once-obscure county election departments have been thrust into the spotlight.

Aguilar likens it to how doctors and nurses stepped up during the pandemic.

“Everybody needed medical care during the time of COVID. … And this is a time when we need poll workers,” Aguilar told The Associated Press. “That legal community can stand up and protect the Constitution.”

From swing states like Michigan to conservative strongholds like Tennessee and Iowa, election officials have been tapping lawyers and law students as they struggle to fill poll worker spots — a challenge that has become more difficult amid changing procedures and hostility stemming from former President Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen election in 2020.

Other recruiting campaigns have focused on veterans and librarians. In 2020, LeBron James helped spearhead an initiative to help turnout in critical swing states and combat Black voter suppression, in no small part by recruiting poll workers.

Poll workers are on the front lines of increasingly contentious environments — ushering people in, answering technical questions and using a handful of training hours to essentially act as guides for a process where disagreements and misinformation can stir up strong emotions.

Since 2020, eight states have adopted policies to allow poll working duties to count toward credits needed to maintain a law license, and national advocates hope more are on the way.

After pitching the idea at a conference earlier this month, a group of bar association presidents now is tailoring the initiative to individual county election offices, rather than blanket approval from the bar associations for entire states.

“Lawyers are careful, and I respect that. I’m one of them, and it takes a while to process,” said Jason Kaune, chair of the American Bar Association’s standing committee on election law, of getting the initiative approved by state bar associations. “This is just a quicker way to get some real results on the ground.”

For Aguilar, his proposal in Nevada — where turnover has ravaged local election departments since 2020 — is part of a wider plan to protect election workers, whom he refers to as “heroes of democracy.”

Since defeating a Republican election denier in the 2022 midterms, Aguilar has sought to create a better environment for election employees. Last year, he pushed a bill signed by Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo that made it a felony to harass, intimidate or use force on election workers performing their duties in Nevada.

Aguilar also hopes that this latest initiative will strengthen the pipeline of full-time election workers with those already well-versed in the law.

Aguilar had hoped the State Bar of Nevada would have implemented his proposal before Nevada’s Feb. 6 presidential preference primary, but the secretary of state’s office has yet to make a formal request for the association to consider, per the State Bar.

During Nevada’s first-in-the-West presidential preference primaries, many election departments scrambled to find poll workers up until the last minute — particularly in rural areas.

In the state’s two most populous counties — Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, and Washoe County, which includes Reno — all poll worker slots were fully staffed by the start of early voting, according to county and state election offices. But they’ll need more before the June primary and November general elections.

In rural Douglas County, officials recruited 46 poll workers — far short of the 120 needed, clerk-treasurer Amy Burgans said. Lyon County also came up short with 32 of 45 poll workers needed, clerk-treasurer Staci Lindberg said.

Nevada’s concentrated educational landscape could make it difficult for lawyers and law students to spread across many of the state’s far-flung counties, which are some of the largest yet least populated in the country. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is home to the state’s only law school.

And of the 12,000 attorneys licensed to practice law in Nevada, half are in Clark County, about 14% are in Washoe County and just under 3% are located in the state’s rural counties outside the state capital, according to data from the State Bar of Nevada.

Burgans said she doesn’t know if any lawyers in Douglas County — which borders a large chunk of Lake Tahoe — would take up the offer to earn credit by working at the polls. “But I will tell you that anything that Secretary Aguilar can do to assist us is appreciated by me and the clerks across the state,” she said.

Poll workers have been particularly difficult to find in Douglas County, partly because it has an abundance of part-time residents and there was widespread confusion recently over a state-run primary happening two days before a Nevada GOP-run caucus.

Burgans also noted there’s some fear around becoming an election worker.

For the first time, she had to set up training after letters containing fentanyl were mailed to election officials in several states including Nevada. With a background in law enforcement, Burgans also set up active shooter training. Like election officials across the state, she received emails and calls from voters frustrated about dueling Republican nominating processes earlier this month but said there had been no direct threats.

Humboldt County Clerk Tami Rae Spero said the impact of legal education credits for working the polls could be “minimal.” Still, she appreciates the effort and said it could be a steppingstone for similar programs that could better reach her county with its population of just over 17,000. One option might be offering community college or high school credits, she said.

Aguilar is more optimistic that the program can reach all corners of the state.

“I think there are some people who are pretty driven by the mission and understand the importance of poll workers and understand the process of democracy,” he said. “So they’ll make extraordinary efforts to make sure that happens.”

___

Stern is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Follow Stern on X: @gabestern326.

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Nevada and other swing states need more poll workers. Can lawyers help fill the gap?