Spotlight on Sussex County, New Jersey
Effectively training poll workers is one of the most important things that a local election office can do to ensure that elections are run smoothly. But it's also one of the most challenging. In particular, it's one thing to train your poll workers, but it's quite another thing to keep them trained.
In Sussex County, New Jersey, administrator Marge Lake McCabe observed this dilemma. "We found that our poll workers do a great job at the Primary Election (right after training)," she explains, "but they struggle during the General Election." In response to this challenge, Marge and her staff developed a smart way to cope: producing "refresher" training videos for poll workers.
Last month, the videos earned the praise of the Election Assistance Commission, which posted a link to the videos on the agency's Facebook account, saying, "What a great idea -- well done, Sussex County!"
EAC Facebook post praising Sussex County's training videos
Located halfway in between Scranton, PA and New York City, Sussex County is the northernmost county in the state of New Jersey. The county is home to 99,146 registered voters and has an election staff of 4 full timers and 1 part timer, along with additional technical support staff.
It's a county with a distinctive topography, containing both the point of highest elevation -- in High Point State Park -- and the deepest point in the state, which is located in the historic Sterling Hills Mine in the borough of Ogdensburg. And although the world famous Jersey Devil is reputed to prowl the southern parts of New Jersey, Sussex County is home to some cryptids of its own: according to local lore, sea monsters have resided in Lake Hopatcong for centuries.
But while Sussex County's landscape and wildlife may be distinctive, the challenges it faces regarding poll worker education are familiar to election officials everywhere.
The fact is, poll worker training is a big job, and because there's so much work involved, many election offices are only able to train once a year. In Sussex County, the Board of Elections limits its training classes to no more than 20 workers each, and it ends up holding over 40 classes every spring. "It's exhausting," Marge admits. "We realized there is no way we could train the poll workers before each election."
Marge Lake McCabe leads a poll worker training class. Photo: Kimberly Sidoti.
But at the same time, there seemed to be a need for additional training. In Sussex County (and in every other county, parish, and municipality), poll workers have busy, full lives, and even the most conscientious workers won't remember every single aspect of running a polling place months after their training ended.
During the fall election, according to Marge, workers had difficulty remembering procedural issues -- things like filling out paperwork properly, issuing provisional ballots, and processing ballots on the electronic voting machines.
The Sussex County Board believed that, to fix the problem, workers just needed to be shown how to do these things again. Video seemed like the right approach for two reasons. For one thing, it would provide a visual illustration of what to do. "We thought that seeing what had to be done on video would be the most effective method to remind them of their responsibilities," Marge says. In addition, a second benefit of video is flexibility: instead of coming to a training location on a set schedule, poll workers could watch the videos at their own convenience.
Producing the Videos
The first stage in creating the videos was planning their content. To make the task manageable for both the people producing the videos and the people watching them, Marge wanted to limit their number to 10. Led by deputy administrator Ellen Griffiths, the staff made a list of the topics that they felt would be most important to cover, and then they narrowed them down. "There are so many topics that it was difficult to narrow it down to 10," Marge acknowledges, "but we thought that we could add more in the future."
Judy Lynch, Dorleen Donahue, and Ellen Griffiths compose scripts for the videos. Photo: Marge McCabe.
Once topics were selected, the Board created scripts for the videos. They arranged to film the videos in their warehouse in an area that they set up to look like a polling place, and for actors, they used a staff member as well as poll workers who graciously volunteered to participate in exchange for a shot at election-video stardom.
Then, production began. Thor Carlson, the Sussex County website manager, handled the technical aspects of making the videos. He was responsible for all of the video and audio capturing and subsequent editing.
For filming, Thor used a Nikon D3200 camera (less than $400.00 on Amazon) mounted on a tripod. The voiceovers were recorded with a USB headset with an attached microphone, and audio recording and editing was done with Audacity, an open-source audio platform. To edit the videos, Thor used Adobe Premiere Pro CC, which allowed him to edit the raw video, add voiceovers, and insert additional visual close-ups and animation where it would enhance the videos.
Filming and editing took some time, but not as much as you might think. "Video recording took place over a four or five day period," Thor says, while "post-production editing took about three weeks."
Marge admits she was initially unsure about the technical requirements for making videos, but in the end, they weren't prohibitive. "When we first thought of the video idea," she says, "we were prepared to reach out to the local college and technical school for assistance. As it turns out, our webmaster was highly qualified and very willing, and even learned some new video techniques during the process."
Web manager Thor Carlson flanked by Ellen and Marge. Photo: John Williams.
Of course, while Thor proved a highly capable video producer for the Sussex Board, Marge's idea about working with a college or trade school is a good one for election offices who may not have a Thor of their own.
Once the videos were edited, Marge and Ellen signed off on them one at a time, and they began showing them to friends, colleagues, and poll workers to get reactions.
The Sussex Board is going to have to wait a few months to see the direct impact of the videos on the General Election, but in the meantime, responses have been overwhelmingly positive.
"They came out so well," Marge explains, "that we are using them during poll worker training in April." In other words, although the videos were originally intended as "refreshers," the videos have been shown to have great potential during regular training, too.
Screen shot from a Sussex County training video on voting equipment
In particular, the Board has been pleased with the way that video can help to visually illustrate important processes. For instance, even with a small training class, it's hard to provide a close-up view of a machine or an affidavit to a whole group of people. But video makes that easy.
Ever since trainer Judy Smith began incorporating the videos in the training process, Marge says, the staff has discovered that "poll workers are picking up information they would usually miss from our standard teaching format."
Judy is screening the videos during in-person training, and in addition, Thor created a YouTube channel to host them and make them public. This makes it possible for poll workers to access them at their own convenience -- whenever and wherever they want. "And since the videos are now on YouTube," Marge jokes, "even if they're on the beach in August they can go online and see how to process a provisional ballot."
It's not yet clear whether or not the videos are going to become popular viewing on the Jersey Shore this summer, but they've already made a positive impact.
For one thing, the videos have earned high praise from the Election Assistance Commission. Calling them "pretty excellent," the EAC posted the videos on the agency's Facebook page as part of its #beready16 campaign.
What's more, back in Sussex County, Marge says that producing the videos has helped her and her staff to reform and streamline the work of their office. "I think the greatest thing we learned through this endeavor," she says, "is how to simplify our own processes. When you look at every little thing you do, and hone it down to the smallest detail, you get to clean up your procedures."
In short, the videos have already proven valuable for everyone involved in administering elections in Sussex County. Poll workers are benefiting from the enhanced training. Thor cultivated new video production skills. And Marge, Ellen, and the rest of her staff were able to improve not only their training, but their other functions, as well.
Video production might seem intimidating, but the experience of Sussex County shows it might be less complicated than you think. "It was not as hard as we anticipated," Marge admits.
Marge and Thor have kindly offered to speak with anyone who has questions about either the administrative or technical aspects of producing poll worker training videos. You can reach out to Marge at email@example.com or Thor at firstname.lastname@example.org.