Counties can boost voter confidence in elections by recruiting average Joes to man the polls, according to a new study from Brigham Young University and Kent State University.

And more confidence spells higher voter turnout — something Salt Lake County could use, after a dismal 7.5 percent turnout in the primary election last week.

The study, which will appear in the July issue of American Politics Research, found that voters gave higher approval ratings to precincts staffed by new poll workers recruited from local schools and businesses to take the day off and be "street-level bureaucrats" on Election Day.

"If you want to improve elections, improve it from the ground up and get new blood in the poll-worker force," BYU political scientist Kelly Patterson said.

"Quality poll workers matter, particularly in the November election, where many voting stations will be crowded or have new equipment that voters may be unfamiliar with."

Researchers studied Ohio voters and poll workers in the 2006 election. At the time, one of the counties there made a concerted effort to recruit young poll workers comfortable with the new electronic voting machines.

Salt Lake County has a similar program, Partners in Democracy. County Clerk Sherrie Swensen recruits businesses, nonprofit groups and other service organizations to provide the entire staff of one or more polling place.

Swensen said the program has helped to attract tech-savvy poll workers to help voters navigate the new electronic voting machines.

"If people go to cast their vote, they don't want to waste their time. They want to know it's counted," Swensen said. "If they go in and have a bad experience, chances are they won't want to continue to come back and vote."

The study also found that voters gave higher marks to poll workers confident in their training.

"It is as if, consciously or unconsciously, poll workers communicate their sense of adequacy and preparation to voters as they interact with them on Election Day," said Quin Monson, a BYU political science professor. "Voters can smell fear and uncertainty."


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